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The Indians presented a reverse image of European civilization which helped America establish a national identity that was neither savage nor civilized.


Charles Sanford, The Quest for Paradise, 1961

From the beginning of European contact with the Americas, a kind of intellectual mercantilism seemed to take shape. Like the economic mercantilism that drew raw materials from the colonies, made manufactured goods from them in Europe, and then sold the finished products back to America, European savants drew the raw material of observation and perception from America, fashioned it into theories, and exported those theories back across the Atlantic. What role, it may be asked, did these observations of America and its native inhabitants play in the evolution of Enlightenment thought in Europe? "The Indians," wrote Charles Sanford with credit to Roy Harvey Pearce, "presented a reverse image of European civilization which helped America establish a national identity which was neither savage nor civilized." How true was this also of Europe itself? During the researching of the foregoing study, the author came across shreds of evidence which, subsequently not followed because they fell outside the range of the study, indicate that European thinkers such as John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and others may have drawn from America and its native inhabitants observations on natural society, natural law, and natural rights, packaged them into theories, and exported them back to America, where people such as Franklin and Jefferson put them into practice in construction of their American amalgam.

          In The Quest for Paradise, Sanford drew a relation between American Indians' conception of property and that expressed by Thomas More in his Utopia. Paul A. W. Wallace also likened the Iroquois' governmental structure to that of Utopia. Work could be done that would begin with the basis laid by Sanford, Robert F. Berkhofer, and Roy Harvey Pearce, which would examine how Europeans such as Locke and other seventeenth and eighteenth-century philosophers integrated observation and perception of American Indians into theories of natural rights. Michael Kraus (The Atlantic Civilization, 1949) wrote that during this period, anthropology was strongly influencing the development of political theory: "[Thomas] Hobbes and Locke, especially, show a familiarity with the social structure of the American Indians which they used to good purpose. Each of the English political scientists wrote in a period of crisis and in search of a more valid ordering of society. . . . The American Indian was believed to have found many of the answers." If such intellectual intercourse did, in fact occur, how did the Europeans get their information? How accurate was it? What other non-Indian precedents did they use in formulating their theories? How were these theories exported back to America, which, as Commager observed, acted the Enlightenment that Europe dreamed? Berkhofer quoted Locke as having written: "In the beginning, all the world was America." According to Berkhofer, Locke believed that men could live in reason and peace without European-style government; Berkhofer implied that Locke saw proof of this, as Jefferson and Franklin did, in the societies of the American Indians. Koch wrote that the English radicals of the eighteenth century were "students and advocates" of the American cause. Franklin, with his rich, firsthand knowledge of Indians and their societies, was well known in England before he began work there in the 1750s. Gillespie wrote that England had been suffused with influences from America, material as well as intellectual, as part of its rapid overseas expansion of empire. Gillespie noted Indian influences in More's Utopia and in Hobbes's Leviathan. Gillespie also found similar relationships in Locke's writings.

          In France, reports of Indian societies traveled to the home country through the writings of Jesuit missionaries, among other channels. How might such writings have influenced the conceptions of natural rights and law developed by Rousseau and others? Frank Kramer has described how some ideas were transmitted home from New France. As the Indians' societies became a point of reference for natural rights theorists in England, so did conceptions of the "Noble Savage" in France. More study needs to be done to document how these ideas, and others, made their way across the Atlantic and into the intellectual constructs of Rousseau and others who helped excite the French imagination in the years preceding the revolution of 1789.

          Carried into the nineteenth century, study could be given to whether American Indian ideas had any bearing on the large number of social and political reform movements that developed during the 1830s and 1840s in the "burned over district" of western New York. That area had been the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy a hundred years earlier, when Colden was writing his history of the Iroquois. Do the origins of the anti-slavery movement, of women's rights, and religions such as Mormonism owe anything to the Iroquois?

          Two contemporaries of Buffalo Bill, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, about the time of the Custer Battle were drawing on the Indian models to support their theories of social evolution. As had Franklin and Jefferson a century before, Marx and Engels paid particular attention to the lack of state-induced coercion and the communal role of property that operated in the Iroquois Confederacy.

          Marx read Lewis Henry Morgan's Ancient Society, which had been published in 1877, between December 1880 and March 1881, taking at least ninety-eight pages of handwritten notes. Ancient Society was Morgan's last major work; his first book-length study had been The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee or Iroquois (1851). Morgan was a close friend of the Seneca Ely Parker, a high-ranking Civil War officer. Like Johnson, Weiser, Colden, and others, Morgan was an adopted Iroquois. When Marx read Morgan's Ancient Society, he and Engels were studying the important anthropologists of their time. Morgan was one of them.

          Marx's notes on Ancient Society adhere closely to the text, with little extraneous comment. What particularly intrigued Marx about the Iroquois was their democratic political organization, and how it was meshed with a communal economic system -- how, in short, economic leveling was achieved without coercion.

          During the late 1870s and early 1880s, Marx remained an insatiable reader, but a life of poverty and attendant health problems had eroded his ability to organize and synthesize what he had read. After Marx died, Engels inherited his notes and, in 1884, published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, subtitled In Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan. The book sold well; it had gone through four editions in German by 1891. Engels called the book a "bequest to Marx." He wrote that Morgan's account of the Iroquois Confederacy "substantiated the view that classless communist societies had existed among primitive peoples," and that these societies had been free of some of the evils, such as class stratification, that he associated with industrial capitalism. Jefferson had been driven by similar evils to depict Europe in metaphors of wolves and sheep, hammer and anvil.

          To Engels, Morgan's description of the Iroquois was important because "it gives us the opportunity of studying the organization of a society which, as yet, knows no state." Jefferson had also been interested in the Iroquois' ability to maintain social consensus without a large state apparatus, as had Franklin. Engels described the Iroquoian state in much the same way that American revolutionaries had a century earlier:

Everything runs smoothly without soldiers, gendarmes, or police, without nobles, kings, governors, prefects or judges; without prisons, without trials. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole body of those concerned. . . . The household is run communistically by a number of families; the land is tribal property, only the small gardens being temporarily assigned to the households -- still, not a bit of our extensive and complicated machinery of administration is required. . . . There are no poor and needy. The communistic household and the gens know their responsibility toward the aged, the sick and the disabled in war. All are free and equal -- including the women.

          Concern for the depredations of human rights by state power is no less evident in our time than in the eighteenth century. American Indians, some of the earliest exemplars of those rights, today often petition the United Nations for redress of abuses committed by the United States government, whose founding declarations often ring hollow in ears so long calloused by the thundering horsehooves of Manifest Destiny and its modern equivalents. One may ask what the United Nations' declarations of human rights owe to the Iroquois and other Indian nations. Take the following excerpts from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted December 10, 1948), and place them next to the Great Law of Peace, and the statements Franklin and other American national fathers adapted from experience with American Indian nations:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1)

Every person has a right to life, liberty and security of person. (Article 3)

Everyone has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. (Article 18)

Everyone has the right of freedom of opinion and religion. (Article 19)

. . . The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments . . . (Article 21)

          Looking across the frontier, as well as across the Atlantic, looking at Indian peace as well as Indian wars, history poses many tantalizing questions. The thesis that American Indian thought played an important role in shaping the mind of European America, and of Europe itself, is bound to incite controversy, a healthy state of intellectual affairs at any time in history, our own included. The argument around which this book is centered is only one part of a broader effort not to rewrite history, but to expand it, to broaden our knowledge beyond the intellectual strait jacket of ethnocentricism that tells us that we teach, but we do not learn from, peoples and cultures markedly different from our own.

          Fortunately, there are fresh winds stirring. Dr. Jeffry Goodman has started what one reviewer called a "civil war" in archaeology. Dr. Henry Dobyns's mathematically derived estimate that 90 million Indians lived in the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus has also stirred debate. There is a sense that we are only beginning to grasp the true dimensions of American history to which Europeans have been personal witness only a few short centuries. The Europeans who migrated here are still learning the history of their adopted land, and that of the peoples who flourished here (and who themselves are today rediscovering their own magnificent pasts). In a very large sense we are only now beginning to rediscover the history that has been passed down in tantalizing shreds, mostly through the oral histories of Indian nations that have survived despite the best efforts of some Euro-Americans to snuff out Indian languages, cultures, and the land base that gives all sustenance. History in its very essence is rediscovery, and we are now relearning some of the things that Benjamin Franklin and others of our ancestors had a chance to see, feel, remark at, and integrate into their view of the world.

          The United States was born during an era of Enlightenment that recognized the universality of humankind, a time in which minds and borders were opened to the new, the wondrous, and the unexpected. It was a time when the creators of a nation fused the traditions of Europe and America, appreciating things that many people are only now rediscovering -- the value of imagery and tradition shaped by oral cultures that honed memory and emphasized eloquence, that made practical realities of democratic principles that were still the substance of debate (and, to some, heresy) in Europe. In its zest for discovery, the Enlightenment mind absorbed Indian traditions and myth, and refashioned it, just as Indians adopted the ways of European man. In this sense, we are all heirs to America's rich Indian heritage.

          Like the eighteenth-century explorers who looked westward from the crests of the Appalachians, we too stand at the edge of a frontier of another kind, wondering with all the curiosity that the human mind can summon what we will find over the crest of the hill in the distance, or around the bend in the river we have yet to see for the first time. What will America teach us next?

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