A recent poll shows the approval rating of Congress at a miserable and embarrassing 8.0%. This, together with recent demonstrations from the Tea Party folks and the Occupy (fill in the blank) groups, exemplify a growing discontent with the direction this country is headed. Indeed, there are many challenges to be dealt now and over the next few years that will impact not only our political and our economic systems, but most of our social institutions as well.
A great many of us it seems, have reached the same conclusion as Will Rogers did decades ago: “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.”
From what I’m seeing, it is not beyond reason to assume that the United States is about to come off the rails and that we are at serious risk of losing our viability as a nation. Given this predicament, perhaps our form of government, at least as practiced here in the early part of the 21st century, is due, even overdue, for a time-out.
But not to worry. There is an alternative and it’s waiting in our own back yard. (Well, actually in upstate New York.) It is the League of the “Haudenosaunee,” which means the “People of the Longhouse.” Originally, this League of Indian tribes consisted of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas, so it was called “The Five Nations” by the British. (Later, the Tuscarora joined, making it the Six Nations.) But the League is better known by its French name, “Iroquois.” And its government is called the “Iroquois Confederacy.”
This political system was conceived by a Huron prophet called “Peacemaker,” whose vision of a unified nation became the “Great Law of Peace.” But it was put into practice by the Onondaga chief Hiawatha, who became famous through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha,”
It is uncertain when the confederacy first came into being. Some scholars believe it could have been as early as 1090 or 1150 CE. If those dates are accurate, then the Great Law of Peace preceded even the Magna Carta, “The Great Writ,” of 1215 CE, which became the foundation for English Law and the inspiration for many Constitutions, including ours.
Although there are too many aspects of the Iroquois Confederacy’s political philosophy to go into here, a few are worth noting.
First and foremost, and for you women’s libbers out there, much of the political power of the confederacy was in the hands of the elder women. They could veto treaties or declarations of war, they appointed members of their clan to the Grand Council, and if any member failed to comply with the wishes of the women of his tribe and the Great Law, the mother could demote him. Iroquois women could also own and sell property and do so without the permission of any patriarch. This gender equality would later become an inspiration to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others in the Women’s Suffrage movement.
The members of the Grand Council, as well as the military leaders, accepted no salary, and gave away any perquisites they might have received. There was no bribery or corruption in office; they felt amply rewarded by the confidence and esteem of the people. In fact, the motivating ethic here was honor and trust. And the punishment for those who misbehaved was shame and dishonor, which, to the guilty, was much worse than a prison sentence.
Of particular significance today is this section of the Great Law: “Whenever a specially important matter or a great emergency is presented before the Confederate Council and the nature of the matter affects the entire body of the Five Nations, threatening their utter ruin, then the Lords of the Confederacy must submit the matter to the decision of their people and the decision of the people shall affect the decision of the Council. This decision shall be a confirmation of the voice of the people.” Here is democracy in action – seven hundred years before ours!
Another pearl: “In all of your deliberations in the Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self-interest shall be cast into oblivion. . . Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”
With regard to “the coming generations,” Oren Lyons, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, writes: “We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given us as chiefs, to make sure and to make every decision that we make relate to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come. . . . What about the seventh generation? Where are you taking them? What will they have?”
Planning for seven generations? How about putting that requirement on Congress?
The Great Law of Peace also had a measurable impact on our Constitution. This fact was acknowledged by the 100th Congress in 1988, via House Consent Resolution 331, which states in pertinent part, ” . . . the confederation of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself. . .”
Testament to this influence occurred during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, when John Rutledge of South Carolina read some tracts from the Great Law, one of which echos the Preamble to our Constitution: “We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order . . .”
So, what we have here is a proven system of governance, one that promotes egalitarianism, and one that incorporated the philosophies of Locke, Montesquieu, Hume, and Rousseau hundreds of years before those political philosophers were born. And it has lasted almost one thousand years!
Compare the Iroquois Confederacy with the dystopia that plagues us today. Seems to me like an alternative worth considering. We just need to get the hammer away from the baby. Think about that the next time you vote.
Published in the Joplin Globe on October 31, 2011