Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

American Indian Constitutions and Their Influence on the United States Constitution 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

American Indian Constitutions and Their Influence on the United States Constitution 1

Article excerpt


American Indian political theories and tribal governance helped shape the political thinking of some of the United States' Founding Fathers and the development of several provisions in the U.S. Constitution."2 This statement is not universally accepted,3 but it is without question that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Wilson, John Adams, Thomas Paine, and other Founding Fathers were acquainted with Indian peoples, tribal governments, and indigenous theories of governance.4 Many of the Founders worked with Indian nations as treaty negotiators and commissioners for colonial, state, and national governments for many decades before the United States and the Constitution were created. Interestingly, the government that was created by the U.S. Constitution more closely reflects the principles of indigenous governments than those of the European monarchies and political regimes of the late-1700s. Furthermore, there is no question that Indian affairs were among the primary justifications for the U.S. Constitution.

In section II, this paper briefly sets out the evidence that American Indian political theories and governments influenced the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Section III then broadly describes modern-day Indian constitutionalism. The paper concludes with the thought that American history and government has been impacted by tribal nations in the past, perhaps more than has been recognized, and will continue to be influenced by indigenous peoples and governments into the future.


Most American history has been written as if history were a function solely of white culture-in spite of the fact that well into the nineteenth century the Indians were one of the principal determinants of historical events.

- Bernard DeVoto 5

In this short paper, we cannot delve deeply into the history of American Indian governments and their organizational and operational principles. It is sufficient to note, however, that historic tribal governments, across what is now the United States, represented a broad array of governance styles, from relatively complex to simple governments, and from nearly autocratic to extremely democratic governments.6 We can also state that there is no question that some of America's Founding Fathers were quite familiar with tribal governmental structures. Many Founders, for example, served their colonial, state, and national governments as treaty negotiators and commissioners to tribal governments and actively studied indigenous theories of government.7 In addition, many Euro-American colonists observed democratic principles and governance at work in Indian governments. Ultimately, the Founders developed democratic political theories and principles that were barely practiced in Europe. Instead, many of the principles that were incorporated into the U.S. Constitution were practiced by North American indigenous cultures and governments long before European contact.8

In addition, there is no question that Native Americans and tribal governments played a significant role in shaping the history of the English colonies and the early history of the American states and the United States.9 Indian affairs were some of the most important "foreign affairs" issues that the U.S. faced in the first decades of its existence and were cited as primary justifications for developing the Constitution.10 It is no surprise, then, that scholars allege that tribal governments and political theories played a part in developing the Founders' political ideas and impacted the development of many provisions in the U.S. Constitution. Tribal cultures and governments had, what I call, both "positive" and "negative" influences on some of the constitutional provisions, as the Founders were positively influenced by Indian ideas regarding government and human freedom and negatively influenced by the threats posed by Indian tribes. …

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