The First National Constitution of the United States
Gordon S. Wood
There are some Americans today who actually believe that the Founding Fathers in 1787 got their ideas about federalism and the Constitution from the Iroquois Confederacy. I once thought that this peculiar notion was confined to the ranks of academic anthropologists, where it could do no harm. But I have since discovered that in October 1988 the United States House of Representatives and Senate passed resolutions recognizing "the contributions of the Iroquois Confederacy of Nations to the development of the United States Constitution." That grown people can believe in such a connection not only indicates the curious way scholarship and politics can get entangled in our culture but also suggests the appalling manner that otherwise educated people think about causality--about the way things come about.
The Iroquois and other Indians certainly made contributions to early American culture--many of them--but ideas about federalism and dividing political power were not among them. The Founding Fathers in 1787 did not have to borrow such political notions from the Iroquois. White Americans had their own long tradition of dividing up and parceling out power to draw on in the making of their Constitution.
The origins of American federalism go back at least to the early seventeenth-century English settlements. The early English migrants to America brought with them strong traditions of local and regional autonomy that conditions in the New World only reinforced and intensified. All the colonies in the seventeenth century experienced an acute localization of authority. Populations in both the Chesapeake and New England quickly dispersed--despite initial efforts to hold them together. The Virginia Company expected compact towns to develop, and it created four of these on paper. These boroughs would send burgesses to the colonial assembly--which is how the Virginia House of Burgesses got its name. But the scattering of settlers in