The Great Law of Peace
Fleeing the Nazi conquest of Europe, the writer Vladimir Nabokov and his family took a ship to the United States in the spring of 1940. Although Nabokov was the scion of a Russian noble family, he detested the class-bound servility ubiquitous in the land of his birth. He was delighted when the lowly U.S. customs officers on the Manhattan dock failed to cringe at his aristocratic bearing and pedigree. Indeed, he reported, “when they opened my suitcase and saw two pairs of boxing gloves, two officers put them on and began boxing. The third became interested in my collection of butterflies and even suggested one kind be called ‘captain.’ When the boxing and the conversation about butterflies finished, the customs men suggested I close the case and go.” Their straightforward, even brash demeanor, with its implicit assumption that everyone was on the same social level, enchanted him.
Nabokov was hardly the first emigré to be surprised by the difference between Americans and Europeans—a cultural divide that Henry James, like many others, attributed to the former’s “democratic spirit.” As has been widely noted, this spirit has consequences both positive and negative. The sense that anyone is as good as anyone else fuels entrepreneurial self-reliance, but also can lead to what outsiders view as political know-nothingism. For better and worse, though, this spirit is widely identified as one of the Americas’ great gifts to the world. When rich stockbrokers in London and Paris proudly retain their working-class accents, when audiences show up at La Scala in track suits and sneakers, when South Africans and Thais complain that the police don’t read suspects their rights as they do on Starsky & Hutch reruns, when anti-government protesters in Beirut sing “We Shall Overcome” in Lebanese accents—all these raspberries in the face of social and legal authority have a distinctly American tone, no matter where they take place. To be sure, apostles of freedom have risen in many places. But an overwhelming number have been inspired by the American example—or, as it should perhaps be called, the Native American example, for among its fonts is Native American culture, especially that of the Haudenosaunee.
A loose military alliance among the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and, after about 1720, the Tuscarora, the Haudenosaunee were probably the greatest indigenous polity north of the Río Grande in the two centuries before Columbus and definitely the greatest in the two centuries after. The evidence is unclear, but the ancestors of the Five Nations, neighboring bands of gatherers and hunters, may have lived in their homeland since the glaciers retreated from the Finger Lakes—the eleven deep, narrow lakes that lie like cat scratches across central New York State. Some time around 1000 A.D., the Indian agricultural trinity of maize, beans, and squash appeared in the area. Taking up agriculture, the Finger Lakes people, by now consolidated into five main groups, lined the region’s hills with farms. Population rose, as has happened time and time again when human societies make the transition from foraging to farming. The burgeoning cultures took to fighting with each other. Because the abduction, injury, or death of a family member had to be revenged, every violent incident led to a spiral of brutal, tit-for-tat skirmishes. From this brutal environment a heroic figure emerged: Deganawidah, the Peacemaker.
So little is known about Deganawidah’s life that archaeologists disagree about whether he actually walked the earth or belongs entirely to the realm of legend. Various traditions provide different accounts of his background, but most say that Deganawidah was not a member of the Five Nations. He was a shamanic outsider who was born to a virgin girl in a village far to the north. Abjuring his past, he floated from his home village in a canoe made from white stone and wandered the Adirondack and Allegheny forests, then a place of constant violence and, apparently, intermittent cannibalism.
Deganawidah had a message of peace. He couldn’t easily promulgate it, though, because he had a tragic flaw: a severe speech impediment, perhaps a stutter. Somehow he connected with Ayenwatha, an Onondaga who was a famous orator. (As “Hiawatha,” this man became the protagonist of the historically confused epic poem of that name by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.) With Ayenwatha as Deganawidah’s spokesman, the two men confronted Tododaho, the powerful leader of the Onondaga, a shaman in his own right, and a warrior-leader who was so deeply locked into the logic of prideful violence that he regarded the thought of peace as a betrayal. In the ensuing conflict Tododaho killed Ayenwatha’s three daughters, nearly derailing the quest for peace. Other versions have the girls killed in a raid by another group. Whatever the circumstances, Ayenwatha vowed that no parent would ever experience such a loss again and rededicated himself to spreading Deganawidah’s ideas.
Over the years Deganawidah and Ayenwatha persuaded the Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, and Mohawk to form an alliance instead of constantly fighting. Tododaho and Onondaga continued to refuse. In a parley, Deganawidah took a single arrow and invited Tododaho to break it, which he did easily. Then he bundled together five arrows and asked Tododaho to break the lot. He couldn’t. In the same way, Deganawidah prophesied, the Five Nations, each weak on its own, would fall into darkness unless they all banded together.
Soon after Deganawidah’s warning, a solar eclipse occurred. The shaken Tododaho agreed to add the Onondaga to the nascent alliance. But he drove a hard bargain, demanding that the main Onondaga village, now buried under the present-day city of Syracuse, New York, become the headquarters for the confederacy. Despite all the convulsions of history, the Onondaga have kept the council fire burning for Haudenosaunee to this day. And Tododaho has remained the title for the alliance’s main speaker.
Deganawidah laid out the new alliance’s rules of operation in the Haudenosaunee constitution: the Great Law of Peace. When issues came up before the alliance, the Tododaho would summon the fifty sachems who represented the clans of the Five Nations. Different nations had different numbers of sachems, but the inequality meant little because all decisions had to be unanimous; the Five Nations regarded consensus as a social ideal. As in all consensus-driven bodies, though, members felt intense pressure not to impede progress with frivolous objections. The heads of clans, who were all female, chose the sachems, all male. As a rule, sachems were succeeded by their nephews, but the system was not entirely hereditary—sachems could be impeached if they displeased their clan, and if their nephews were not deemed fit for office, someone outside the family could take over.
Striking to the contemporary eye, the 117 codicils of the Great Law were concerned as much with establishing the limits on the great council’s powers as on granting them. Its jurisdiction was strictly limited to relations among the nations and outside groups; internal affairs were the province of the individual nations. Although the council negotiated peace treaties, it could not declare war—that was left to the initiative of the leaders of each of Haudenosaunee’s constituent nations. According to the Great Law, when the council of sachems was deciding upon “an especially important matter or a great emergency,” its members had to “submit the matter to the decision of their people” in a kind of referendum.
In creating such checks on authority, the league was just the most formal expression of a region-wide tradition. The sachems of Indian groups on the eastern seaboard were absolute monarchs in theory. In practice, wrote colonial leader Roger Williams, “they will not conclude of ought…unto which the people are averse.” The league was predicated, in short, on the consent of the governed, without which the entire enterprise would collapse. Compared to the despotic societies that were the norm in Europe and Asia, Haudenosaunee was a libertarian dream.
In the same sense, it was also a feminist dream: the Five Nations were largely governed internally by the female clan heads, and the Great Law explicitly ordered council members to heed “the warnings of your women relatives.” Failure to do so would lead to their removal. The equality granted to women was not the kind envisioned by contemporary Western feminists—men and women were not treated as equivalent. Rather, the sexes were assigned to two separate social domains, neither subordinate to the other. No woman could be a war chief; no man could lead a clan. Anthropologists debate the extent of women’s clout under this “separate-but-equal” arrangement, but according to University of Toledo historian Barbara Mann, author of Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (2004), the female-led clan councils set the agenda of the League—“men could not consider a matter not sent to them by the women.” Women, who held title to all the land and its produce, could vote down decisions by the male leaders of the League and demand that an issue be reconsidered. Under this regime women were so much better off than their counterparts in Europe that nineteenth-century U.S. feminists like Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, all of whom lived in Haudenosaunee country, drew inspiration from their lot.
According to Haudenosaunee tradition, the alliance was founded centuries before Europeans arrived. Non-Indian researchers long treated this claim to antiquity with skepticism. The league, in their view, was inherently fragile and fissiparous; if it had been founded a thousand years ago, it would have broken up well before the Pilgrims. And there was little archaeological evidence that the league had existed for many centuries. But both traditional lore and contemporary astronomical calculations suggest that Haudenosaunee dates back to between 1090 and 1150 A.D. The former date was calculated by Seneca historian Paula Underwood, who based her estimate on the tally of generations in oral records. The latter came from historian Mann and her Toledo colleague, astronomer Jerry Fields. The Five Nations recorded the succession of council members with a combination of pegs and carved images on long wooden cylinders called Condolence Canes. (Iroquois pictographs could convey sophisticated ideas, but functioned more as a mnemonic aid than a true writing system. The symbols were not conventionalized—that is, one person could not easily read a document composed by another.) According to Mohawk historian Jake Swamp, 145 Tododahos spoke for the league between its founding and 1995, when Mann and Fields made their calculation. With this figure in hand, Mann and Fields calculated the average tenure of more than three hundred other lifetime appointments, including popes, European kings and queens, and U.S. Supreme Court justices. Multiplying the average by the number of Tododahos, the two researchers estimated that the alliance was probably founded in the middle of the twelfth century. To check this estimate, Mann and Fields turned to astronomical tables. Before 1600, the last total solar eclipse observable in upstate New York occurred on August 31, 1142. If Mann and Fields are correct, this was the date on which Tododaho accepted the alliance. The Haudenosaunee thus would have the second oldest continuously existing representative parliaments on earth. Only Iceland’s Althing, founded in 930 A.D., is older.
Scholars debate these estimates, but nobody disputes that the Haudenosaunee exemplified the formidable tradition of limited government and personal autonomy shared by many cultures north of the Río Grande. To some extent, this freedom simply reflected North American Indians’ relatively recent adoption of agriculture. Early farming villages worldwide were much less authoritarian places than later societies. But the Indians of the eastern seaboard institutionalized their liberty to an unusual extent—the Haudenosaunee especially, but many others, too. (“Their whole constitution breathes nothing but liberty,” said colonist James Adair of the Ani Yun Wiya [Cherokee].) Important historically, these were the free people encountered by France and Britain—personifications of democratic self-government so vivid that some historians and activists have argued that the Great Law of Peace directly inspired the U.S. Constitution.
Taken literally, this assertion seems implausible. With its grant of authority to the federal government to supersede state law, its dependence on rule by the majority rather than consensus, its bicameral legislature (members of one branch being simultaneously elected), and its denial of suffrage to women, slaves, and the unpropertied, the Constitution as originally enacted was sharply different from the Great Law. In addition, the Constitution’s emphasis on protecting private property runs contrary to Haudenosaunee traditions of communal ownership. But in a larger sense, the claim is correct. The framers of the Constitution, like most colonists in what would become the United States, were pervaded by Indian ideals and images of liberty.
In the first two centuries of colonization, the border between natives and newcomers was porous, almost nonexistent. The two societies mingled in a way that is difficult to imagine now; Europeans had close-up views of their indigenous neighbors. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, the aging John Adams recalled the Massachusetts of his youth as a multiracial society. “Aaron Pomham the Priest and Moses Pomham the King of the Punkapaug and Neponsit Tribes were frequent Visitors at my Father’s House,” he wrote nostalgically. “There was a numerous Family in this Town [Quincy, Massachusetts, where Adams grew up], whose Wigwam was within a Mile of this House.” They frequently visited Adams, “and I in my boyish Rambles used to call at their Wigwam, where I never failed to be treated with Whortle Berries, Blackberries, Strawberries or Apples, Plumbs, Peaches, etc.” Benjamin Franklin was equally familiar with Native American life; as a diplomat, he negotiated with the Haudenosaunee in 1753. Among his closest friends was Conrad Weiser, an adopted Mohawk, and the Indians’ unofficial host at the talks. And one of the mainstays of Franklin’s printing business was the publication of Indian treaties, then viewed as critical state documents.
As Franklin and many others noted, Indian life—not only among the Haudenosaunee, but throughout the Northeast—was characterized by a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe. Franklin’s ancestors may have emigrated from Europe to escape oppressive rules, but colonial societies were still vastly more coercive and class-ridden than indigenous villages. “Every man is free,” the frontiersman Robert Rogers told a disbelieving British audience, referring to Indian villages. In these places, he said, no other person, white or Indian, sachem or slave, “has any right to deprive [anyone] of his freedom.” As for the Haudenosaunee, colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, they had “such absolute Notions of Liberty, that they allow of no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.” (Colden, who later became vice governor of New York, was an adoptee of the Mohawks.)
Rogers and Colden admired these Indians, but not every European did. “The Savage does not know what it is to obey,” complained the French explorer Nicolas Perrot in the 1670s. Indians “think every one ought to be left to his own Opinion, without being thwarted,” the Jesuit Louis Hennepin wrote twenty years later. The Indians, he grumbled, “believe what they please and no more”—a practice dangerous, in Hennepin’s view, to a well-ordered society. “There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America,” another Jesuit unhappily observed. “All these barbarians have the law of wild asses—they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit.”
Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality. Northeastern Indians were appalled by the European propensity to divide themselves into social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy compelled to defer to those on the upper. The French adventurer Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron of Lahontan, lived in French Canada between 1683 and 1694 and frequently visited the Huron. When the baron expatiated upon the superior practices of Europe, the Indians were baffled. The Huron, he reported in an account of his American years, could not understand why
one Man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more Respect than the Poor…. They brand us for Slaves, and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alleging, That we degrade ourselves in subjecting our selves to one Man [a king] who possesses the whole Power, and is bound by no Law but his own Will…. [Individual Indians] value themselves above anything that you can imagine, and this is the reason they always give for’t, That one’s as much Master as another, and since Men are all made of the same Clay there should be no Distinction or Superiority among them. [Emphasis in original.]
The essayist Montaigne had noted the same antiauthoritarian attitudes a century earlier. Indians who visited France, he wrote, “noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer [that is, tolerate] such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”
I asked seven anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians if they would rather have been a typical citizen of Europe or the Haudenosaunee in 1491. None was delighted by the question, because it asked them to judge the past by the standards of today—a fallacy disparaged as “presentism” by social scientists. But every one of the seven chose the Indians. Some early colonists gave the same answer. The leaders of Jamestown tried to persuade Indians to transform themselves into Europeans. Embarrassingly, almost all of the traffic was the other way—scores of English joined the locals despite promises of dire punishment. The same thing happened in New England. Puritan leaders were horrified when some members of a rival English settlement began living with the Massachusett Indians. My ancestor’s desire to join them led to trumped-up murder charges for which he was executed—or, anyway, that’s what my grandfather told me.
When an Indian Child has been brought up among us [Franklin lamented in 1753], taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. [But] when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life…and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, when there is no reclaiming them.
Influenced by their proximity to Indians—by being around living, breathing role models of human liberty—European colonists adopted their insubordinate attitudes, which “troubled the power elite of France,” the historian Cornelius J. Jaenen observed. Baron d’Arce was an example, despite his noble title; as the passage he italicized suggests, his account highlighted Indian freedoms as an incitement toward rebellion. In Voltaire’s Candide, the eponymous hero is saved from death at the hands of an imaginary group of Indians only when they discover that he is not, as they think, a priest; the author’s sympathy with the anticlerical, antiauthoritarian views of Indians he called “Oreillons” is obvious. Both the clergy and Louis XIV, the king whom Baron d’Arce was goading, tried to suppress these dangerous ideas by instructing French officials to force a French education upon the Indians, complete with lessons in deferring to their social betters. The attempts, Jaenen reported, were “everywhere unsuccessful.”
In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists’ allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members—surrounded by examples of free life—always had the option to vote with their feet. It is likely that the first British villages in North America, thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that characterized European life. But it is also clear that they were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of Native American culture. That spirit alarmed and discomfited many Europeans, toff and peasant alike. But it is also clear that many others found it a deeply attractive vision of human possibility.
Historians have been puzzlingly reluctant to acknowledge this contribution to the end of tyranny worldwide. Think of I. Bernard Cohen claiming that Enlightenment philosophers derived their ideas of freedom from Newtonian physics, when a plain reading of their texts shows that Locke, Hume, Rousseau, and Thomas Paine took many of their illustrations of liberty from native examples. So did the Boston colonists who held their anti-British Tea Party dressed as “Mohawks.” When others took up European intellectuals’ books and histories, images of Indian freedom exerted an impact far removed in time and space from the sixteenth-century Northeast. For much the same reason as their confreres in Boston, protesters in South Korea, China, and Ukraine wore “Native American” makeup in, respectively, the 1980s, 1990s, and the first years of this century.
So accepted now around the world is the idea of the implicit equality and liberty of all people that it is hard to grasp what a profound change in human society it represented. But it is only a little exaggeration to claim that everywhere that liberty is cherished—Britain to Bangladesh, Sweden to Soweto—people are children of the Haudenosaunee and their neighbors. Imagine—here let me now address non-Indian readers—somehow meeting a member of the Haudenosaunee from 1491. Is it too much to speculate that beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair, and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors?
When I set out to write 1491, my hope was that it would introduce readers to a subject that I found fascinating. For this reason I wanted to have a fuller bibliography than is usual in popular works—I wished to point people to the original sources, so that readers who were interested could find out more.
Most of the researchers whose work I covered have been very kind about 1491, but I knew from the beginning that few would be completely satisfied. Any book so broad in scope risks getting the details wrong; besides, it was written by a journalist, and journalists and scholars notoriously have different interests and styles.
As it turned out, the section that drew the greatest criticism was the coda. If I could write the book over again, I would go in more detail there, both to explain my point better and because the section exemplifies, to my mind, why the book’s subtitle is justified, even though (as some archaeologically sophisticated readers have complained) some of the “new revelations” chronicled in 1491 occurred fifty years ago. More than fifty, in fact—some of the demographic estimates I describe in the first section date to the 1940s.
The reason for the subtitle is that for the most part these revelations—the great antiquity, size, and sophistication of Indian societies—are new to the public. The question, implicit in the previous, is the cause of the gap. Why don’t intelligent non-specialists, the sort of people who know a bit about stem cells and read contemporary literature, already know something about how researchers think of the Americas before Columbus? Another way of putting the question would be to ask: Why isn’t this material already in high-school textbooks?
In the past one could have simply pointed to institutional racism. Today, though, when textbooks are routinely criticized for overemphasizing the stories of minorities and women, it seems hard to imagine that ethnocentrism accounts for the relative lack of attention paid to the indigenous world. To my mind, the culprit nowadays is more likely to be disciplinary boundaries. Except possibly for China and Japan, non-Western societies have generally been regarded as the province of anthropology and archaeology. As a result, the historians who write school textbooks have all too often waved their hands at the first fifteen or twenty thousand years of American history in an obligatory first chapter and then moved quickly into fields they find more congenial. Even today, a surprising number of historians remain unaware of the discoveries and methodologies of their colleagues in anthropology, archaeology, geography, and cultural studies. Similarly, many anthropologists know little of what has been called “ethnohistory.” While I was giving a presentation about this book at a large U.S. university, a man in the audience, identifying himself as an American historian, asked me how he could learn more about this material. I am not mocking him for asking—I was delighted that he wanted to know the answer. But at the same time I was amazed: He was in an audience full of professors and graduate students who could have answered his every question. Repeated incidents of this sort have convinced me that his lack of knowledge was not exceptional.
Change is occurring, but there is still no account, to cite but one example, of the conquest of Mexico that masters the evidence in both Spanish and Nahuatl to portray the two sides in equal depth. The lack is amazing, given that the conquest is one of the most pivotal moments in recent history—it delivered the vast wealth of the Americas to Europe, and that newly acquired wealth played a principal role in Europe’s rise to dominance.
To be sure, a number of historians have worked to portray the indigenous side in post-contact history. (One U.S. example is Alan Gallay’s The Indian Slave Trade, a remarkable history of the pre-Revolutionary Southeast that appeared in 2003; another is Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground, a study of British-Haudenosaunee relations in the Revolutionary era, from 2006.) But even many of these writers have shied away from awarding Indians the status of full participants—by asking, for example, how native societies influenced the colonial societies that mingled with them.
This criticism applies primarily to historians of North America. South of the Rio Grande, the indigenous influence on colonial and post-colonial society has been celebrated for decades. (This celebration, which has been convenient for nationalistic reasons, has not always led to teaching Latin American children accurately about those native societies, or to treating contemporary indigenous people fairly.) The native imprint is obvious in the arts; the art and architecture produced by the synthesis of Indian and European styles in colonial Mesoamerica, the Clark University art historian Gauvin Alexander Bailey argued in a 2005 monograph, is “one of humanity’s greatest and most pluralistic achievements.” But this synthesis is apparent in many other aspects of the culture, too, as would be expected in a place where three-quarters of the population claims some Indian descent.
North of the Rio Grande the possibility of such influences are often ignored when not denied. To some extent this is understandable. After all, Indians were and are less numerous in the North. And most native societies in what is now the United States and Canada did not have written languages, monumental public architecture, or the wide-ranging aesthetic traditions of their neighbors to the south. Yet European colonists mingled with intact native cultures for some three centuries. Colonist Susanna Johnson described eighteenth-century New Hampshire, for example, as “such a mix…of savages and settlers, without established laws to govern them, that the state of society cannot easily be described.” During those centuries, Indians were greatly influenced—culturally, technologically, intellectually—by colonists. It seems implausible that the exchange could have been entirely one-way—that the natives have had little or no long-lasting impact on the newcomers. At the least the claim is something to be demonstrated rather than assumed.
Scholars have acknowledged such borrowings as moccasins, maize, and military tactics, such as the Indian-style guerrilla skirmishes with which the rebellious colonists bedeviled British soldiers. (“In this country,” Gen. John Forbes argued in 1758, “wee must comply and learn the Art of Warr, from Enemy Indians.”) With such adaptive changes, as the historian James Axtell has called them, Europeans employed Indian technology and tactics to achieve their goals. But they did not change how they viewed themselves or the world. According to an influential essay Axtell published in 1981, the most important role Indians played in the evolution of the United States was as “military foes and cultural foes”—to be the “otherness” that colonists reacted against. “The whole colonial experience of trying to solve a related series of ‘Indian problems’ had much to do with giving the colonists an identity indissolubly linked to America,” he wrote. Collectively recoiling from the native population of the Americas, Europeans learned how to become a new version of themselves.
Here, though, most historians have stopped. They have seen the Algonkian- and Iroquoian-speaking societies they encountered in the Northeast as too different from British societies to have exerted lasting changes on them. How could these hierarchical, acquisitive, market-oriented, monotheistic, ethnocentric newcomers have absorbed ideas and customs from the egalitarian, reciprocal, noncapitalistic, pantheistic, ethnocentric natives? My suggestion that the Haudenosaunee could have had an impact on the American character is “naïve,” according to Alan Taylor, because it “minimizes the cultural divide separating consensual natives from coercive colonists.” Perhaps so, but then skeptics must explain how the cultural divide between Indians and Spaniards, who did deeply influence each other, could have been so much smaller.
(The historian Francis Jennings has wondered how “Iroquois propagandists,” as he calls them, can cite Benjamin Franklin’s words about Indians, as I did, given his oft-expressed “contempt for ‘ignorant Savages.’…But people believe what they want to believe in the face of logic and evidence.” The argument is baffling; it is like claiming that African-Americans had no impact on European-American culture, because the latter was racist and systematically oppressed the former.)
To Europeans, Indians were living demonstrations of wholly novel ways of being human—exemplary cases that were mulled over, though rarely understood completely, by countless Europeans. Colonists and stay-at-homes, intellectuals and commoners, all struggled to understand, according to the sociologist-historian Denys Delâge, of Laval University, in Québec, “the very existence of these relatively egalitarian societies, so different in their structure and social relationships than those of Europe.” Montaigne, Rousseau, Locke, Voltaire, Jefferson, Franklin, and Thomas Paine were among the writers who mulled over the differences between native and European ways of life; some pondered Indian criticism of European societies. The result, Delâge explained, was to promote a new attitude of “cultural relativism” that in turn fed Enlightenment era debates “about the republican form of government, the rearing of children, and the ideals of freedom, equality, brotherhood, and the right to happiness.”
Cultural influence is difficult to pin down in documents and concrete actions. Nevertheless it exists. In 1630 John Winthrop led what was then the largest party of would-be colonists from Britain—some seven hundred people—to Massachusetts, where they founded the city of Boston. As the expedition was under way, the deeply religious Winthrop explained his vision of what the new colony should become: “a citty upon a hill.” The city would be ruled by the principles of the Pilgrim’s God. Among these principles: the Supreme Deity loves each person equally, but He did not intend them to play equal roles in society:
GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.
Winthrop’s ideal community, that is, was not a place of equal opportunity, nor a place where social distinctions were erased; the “mean” circumstances of the poor were “in all times” part of God’s plan, and could not be greatly changed (if poor people got too far behind, the rich were supposed to help them). The social ideal was responsible adherence to religiously inspired authority, not democratic self-rule.
The reality turned out to be different. Instead of creating Winthrop’s vision of an ordered society, the Pilgrims actually invented the raucous, ultra-democratic New England town meeting—a system of governance, the Dartmouth historian Colin Calloway observes, that “displays more attributes of Algonkian government by consensus than of Puritan government by the divinely ordained.” To me, it seems unlikely that the surrounding Indian example had nothing to do with the change.
Accepting that indigenous societies influenced American culture opens up fascinating new questions. To begin with, it is possible that native societies could also have exercised a malign influence (this is why the subject is not necessarily “pious” or “romantic primitivism,” as the Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has complained). Look to the Southeast, where, as Taylor has noted, “colonial societies sustained a slave system more oppressive than anything practiced in Europe” and “the slave-owners relied on Indians to catch runaways.” There, too, the native groups, descended from Mississippian societies, were far more hierarchical and autocratically ruled than the Algonkian- and Iroquoian-speaking groups in the Northeast. As Gallay has documented, indigenous societies cooperated fully with the slave-trading system, sending war captives to colonists for sale overseas. In the Northeast, by contrast, the Wendat (Huron) and Haudenosaunee either killed or, more common, adopted captives; involuntary servitude, though it occurred, was strikingly rarer.
On the map, the division line between slave and non-slave societies occurs in Virginia, broadly anticipating the Mason-Dixon line that later split slave states from free. The repeated pattern doubtless has to do with geography—southeastern climate and soil favor plantation crops like tobacco and cotton. And southern colonists’ preference for slavery presumably reflected their different ethnic, class, and religious backgrounds. But can one readily dismiss the different Indian societies who lived in these places? And if not, to what extent are contemporary American conflicts over race the playing out, at least in part, of a cultural divide that came into being hundreds of years before Columbus?
A few personal remarks: After the first publication of this book, a number of readers and researchers contacted me with observations and criticisms, many of which made their way into this updated and corrected edition. Some book reviewers, too, drew my attention to errors, which I have tried to fix. For this help, I thank T. Chad Amos, David B. Bieler, Alfred W. Crosby, Todd Follansbee, Daniel W. Gade, Berl Golomb, Bob Hart, Bruce Johansen, Jeff Kellem, Elias Levy, Barbara Mann, William H. McNeill, Daniel N. Paul, Victor Sanchez, Jeffrey Shallit, Ted Slusarczyk, Michael M. Smith, Rev. Steve Thom, Rick Uyesugi, and Ronald Wright. I am sure I have left out some names—not until relatively late in the process did I begin keeping records. A couple of people read all or part of the published book a second time after having read it a first time in manuscript. One of these gluttons for punishment, Frances Karttunen, gave my Nahuatl orthography a second critique (it is still imperfect, but I hope improved); I also profited from her other insights. William Denevan, too, went through everything again with blue pencil in hand. I am indebted to both. A number of bloggers weighed in, for which my especial thanks to James Hannam (Venerable Bede), Chris Price (Layman) and Laura Gjovaag (Tegan).
My gratitude to the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, which, under the direction of Antoinette WinklerPrins and Narciso Barrera Bassols, organized a special panel on 1491 at their annual congress in Michoacán, Mexico. On the panel were William Doolittle, Suzanna Hecht, George Lovell, Billie Lee Turner, William I. Woods, and again William Denevan. Through the auspices of Jerry Dobson (to whom my thanks) the proceedings will be published in the Geographical Review. Finally, I am saddened to note that just before this book appeared the archaeologist Jim Petersen, whom I had come to consider a friend, was murdered during a stupid robbery in the Amazon. I hope that in a small way this book reflects the infectious delight he took in unveiling the human story, and in explaining his discoveries—and those of his colleagues—to anyone who wanted to learn.