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The Great Law of Peace

By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Iroquois had practiced their own egalitarian government for hundreds of years. The Iroquois reputation for diplomacy and eloquence reveals they had securely evolved a sophisticated political system founded on reason, not on mere power. Accounts of the "noble savage" living in "natural freedom" had inspired European theorists John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to expound ideas that had ignited the American Revolution and helped shape the new direction of government.

But the Founding Fathers found their best working model for their new government, not in the writings of Europeans, but through their direct contact with the Iroquois League; for the Great Law of Peace provided both model and incentive to transform thirteen separate colonies into the United States.

George Washington, after a visit to the Iroquois, expressed "great excitement" over the Iroquois" two houses and Grand Council. Ben Franklin wrote, "It would be strange if ignorant savages could execute a union that persisted ages and appears indissoluble; yet like union is impractical for twelve colonies to whom it is more necessary and advantageous."

At Cornell's conference, Dr. Donald Grinde, Jr. of Gettysburg College presented evidence that Thomas Jefferson adopted the specific symbols of the Peacemaker legend. The Tree of Peace became the Tree of Liberty; the Eagle, clutching a bundle of thirteen arrows, became the symbol of the new American government.

Grinde also brought the revelation that "one of the framers, John Rutledge of South Carolina, chair of the drafting committee, read portions of Iroquois Law to members of the committee. He asked them to consider a philosophy coming directly from this American soil."

The Great Law of Peace laid out a government "of the people, by the people and for the people" with three branches. The Onondaga, the Firekeepers, are the heart of the Confederacy. Similarly, the U.S. presidency forms an executive branch.

The League's legislative branch is in two parts: Mohawk and Seneca are Elder Brothers who form the upper house, while Oneida and Cayuga are Younger Brothers, similar to the Senate and House of the United States Congress. The Iroquois" equivalent of a Supreme Court is the Women's Councils, which settle disputes and judge legal violations.
America Joins the Great Peace

In 1776, the Continental Congress appointed George Morgan the first Indian agent to promote peace with Indian nations. Congressional President John Hancock told Morgan to follow the custom of the Iroquois "forest diplomats" by taking a "great peace belt with 13 diamonds and 2,500 wampum beads" to invite Indians to the first U.S.-Indian Peace Treaty. This historic Washington Covenant belt was given to the chiefs and clan mothers at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784 as a promise that they would never be forced to fight in U.S. wars, and that Indian land rights would be respected. As in the Peacemaker legend, the war hatchet was buried beneath the Tree of Peace and prayers of peace were offered through the sacred pipe.

Another speaker at the Cornell conference, Gregory Schaaf, Ph.D, recently discovered a cache of Morgan's papers in an attic of Susannah Morgan, 94-year-old family heir. In his book The Birth of Frontier Democracy from an Eagle's Eye View, he writes: "Before the Revolution, members of the Continental Congress met with Iroquois ambassadors to learn how they governed themselves. A Chief advised, 'Our wise forefathers established Union and AmityI this made us formidable. We are a powerful Confederacy, and if you observe the same methods, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power.'

After meeting with the Iroquois in 1754, Ben Franklin first proposed creating a colonial Grand Council in the 'Albany Plan of Union': 'One Government may be formed administered by a President, and a Grand Council chosen by representatives of the people.' Franklin's plan for a Grand Council of United Colonies resembles the Iroquois Grand Council."

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