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Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Liberty in Perfection: Freedom in Native American Thought

We Can Learn Much from Amerindian Notions of the Individual, the Group, and the Law

Amy Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history and specializes in Cherokee studies. She is the director of the Vanderbilt Oral History Project at Vanderbilt University.

Preacher Samuel Peters’s encounter with a free society was a memorable one. In 1781, he wrote in awe: “The conscious independence of each individual warms his thoughts and guides his actions. . . . Here is liberty in perfection!”[1]

Though he wrote in the shadow of the War for Independence, Peters was not praising the American colonists-turned-rebels. Instead, he had found life in the American Indian villages of New England to be the true experiment in liberty. He even went so far as to credit Amerindian rights theory as the catalyst for the colonial break with England, saying that the colonists “discovered that they themselves were men, and entitled to the rights of that race of beings; and they proceeded upon the same maxims which they found among the Indians.”[2]

Samuel Peters’s words exhort us to remember that we have inherited the language of liberty in many tongues. From the Greek Sophists and Roman orators to the Islamic economists and Patristic theorists, ancient and medieval thinkers led the inquiry into the nature of freedom. In the modern era much of what we recognize as classical-liberal thought flowed through nationalistic European streams: the realistic English tradition of law, the rationalistic French tradition of humanism, and the organic German tradition of individualism. Few scholars and students of liberty today, however, turn their eyes to North America to investigate the Amerindian contribution to the philosophy of freedom. Far from primitive or forgotten, the New World’s indigenous legacy of individual liberty, limited government, and legitimate law offer insights as fresh and relevant as the new millennium.

Many Currents

Of course native American thought cannot be adequately simplified into one monolithic river any more than European or Anglo thought can be. Specific currents are more easily identified and discussed, however, thanks to the persistence of languages, written and oral records, third-party documentation, as well as the survival of political institutions today. Among these currents are the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, of the northeast, and the Tsalagi, or Cherokee Nation, of the southeast. Together, they offer valuable examples of the first American republics.

In 1727 political theorist and scholar Cadwallader Colden wrote of the Iroquois Confederacy: “The Five Nations have such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.”[3] The five nations of what is today the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York—the Onondagas, the Senecas, the Mohawks, the Cayugas, and the Oneidas—had ended their intertribal warfare and formed a federal union in approximately 1200. The constitution uniting the nations was called Kaianrekowa, the Great Law of Peace. Recorded and preserved in wampum, this document codified laws for each nation, rules for the confederacy, and consistent rights protection for all citizens. National membership remained open, and other peoples joined the confederacy. The northeastern body eventually became known as the Six Nations after the formal addition of the Tuscaroras around 1714.

Of the Cherokee Nation in which he practiced, mid-eighteenth-century colonial surgeon George Milliken Johnson wrote: “Subjugation is what they are unacquainted with . . . there being no such thing as coercive Power among them.”[4] In 1757, Raymond Demere agreed, saying there was no “Subjugation among them, they can’t be compelled to do any Thing nor oblige them to embrace any Party except [as] they please.”[5] The Cherokee Nation, located in the Appalachian region of what is today Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and East Tennessee, had like the Iroquois formed a republic centuries before Columbus. By the time of European contact, a complex clan-based common law provided national, regional, and local governance for four distinct regions and over 60 discrete towns. In 1827, the Cherokee Nation became the first native polity to write and ratify a national constitution in the European sense.

Scholars of the Iroquois and Cherokees have discovered what Haudenosaunee and Tsalagi descendants have reiterated for generations: these nations developed a consistent and sophisticated understanding of liberty in pre-contact North America.[6] We can learn much from Amerindian notions of the individual, the group, and the law.

Individualist Culture

Native American culture and politics revolved around the individual. The Cherokees used the metaphor of seven directions to explain this emphasis: North, South, East, West, Up, Down, and Where You Are. The position of Where You Are put the individual at the center of her universe, with the other six directions dependent on her. While this symbolic position honored the individual as the star in her own universe, it also implied that she possessed the power and the opportunity to keep that universe in balance. The Cherokees, like the Iroquois and others, viewed this balancing act as the product of lifelong self-discovery. To this end, the cultures offered a tolerant environment for artistic, sexual, philosophical, and spiritual experimentation. To reflect this they also allowed children to change their names as they grew and explored themselves. An act of heroism, a discovered talent, a cultivated physical or spiritual trait, even a famous relative could be cause for name-changing. The community thereby encouraged the individual to define and redefine himself freely throughout the course of his life.

This concern for individual liberty translated into politics. The Great Law of Peace included a section akin to the U.S. Bill of Rights, protecting the freedom of worship, speech, and assembly. The Cherokees limited town size so that all citizens could have the opportunity to speak in each council session if they so desired. Both republics were gender-blind, allowing women and men the same opportunities to participate and, if elected, to lead. (Indeed, the Cherokee language had no gendered pronouns. “He speaks in council” and “she speaks in council” both translated as “a Cherokee speaks in council.”) This inclusiveness led to political equality under the constitutions. Divorce law and property law, for example, unlike its counterparts across the ocean, recognized no difference between men and women.

The value the Amerindians placed on the individual meant that the power of the group, be that the town, region, nation, or confederacy, had to remain limited. Participation was one check on the power of government. Control could not rest with one party or faction alone because any leader had to build a coalition to survive. The Great Law of Peace required the consent of leaders from all five (later, six) nations for any law or action, and Cherokee tradition required the consent of representatives from all seven clans, even at the town level. Beyond the need for coalition, the Iroquois maintained a structure of checks and balances not unlike the U.S. tripartite system. The Cherokees’ right of dissent and withdrawal, a version of conscientious objection, further protected the rights of those in the minority.

Legitimate legal decisions, then, had to pass through coalitions from the local democracies to the greater republics via systems of checks and balances. Without taxes or full-time police forces or similar instruments of coercion, the governments of the Iroquois League and the Cherokee Nation did little save physically defend against external attack and internally protect the negative rights of the citizens. And what of illegitimate law? The Cherokees’ system of individual and corporate withdrawal afforded the equivalent of “no confidence” votes. The Iroquois League had processes for the impeachment and removal of leaders who failed to uphold the constitution.

A combination of catastrophic depopulation (from massive epidemics following the introduction of smallpox and other diseases from Europe), imperial and colonial warfare, violent cultural miscommunications, and blatant bigotry prevented many Amerindian nations from enjoying economic and political development in tandem with European colonists and, later, U.S. citizens. Yet, despite these obstacles, some native Americans became capitalistic and constitutional powerhouses in their own right in the age after Columbus. The Cherokees, for example, developed a written language, a bilingual press, a ratified constitution, and the infrastructure of a modern nation-state. Thomas Jefferson was a particular admirer of such Cherokee leaders as Ostenaco and Doublehead. As President he praised the Cherokee Nation, acknowledging that its progress had “been like grain sown in good ground, producing abundantly,” and extended his personal invitation to its members to join the United States as full citizens.[7]

It was, in fact, the Cherokees’ very prosperity and success that later made them the target of the state of Georgia. By stripping the Cherokee citizens of their property and forcibly removing them to Indian Territory via the infamous Trail of Tears of 1838–39, U.S. citizens transferred Cherokee plantations, businesses, and other wealth to their own pockets. Even the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Cherokees’ favor was not enough to protect the Amerindians’ rights. President Andrew Jackson encouraged the illegal removal and the theft of property that it facilitated.

Those Cherokees who survived relocation ratified another constitution and reassembled their economy, only to have their property redistributed yet again by Washington. In the years since then, the United States, primarily through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has repeatedly pursued policies that punish American Indian moves toward political self-determination and economic growth. But old ways die hard. Today Amerindian entrepreneurship and political theory are once again reasserting themselves through such disparate avenues as oral history and cyberspace.

Protecting Individuality

In the modern era, much of the mainstream has fallen prey to the stereotype of the native American as the proto-socialist communitarian whose sense of self was irretrievably anchored in his polity. It is true that the Amerindians valued civic participation, but not for the same reasons as the orators of Western antiquity. The Iroquois and the Cherokees did not value the process of a democratic republic because it consumed their identity; they valued it because it protected their individuality. The political debate from the Cherokee town council to the Iroquois Grand Council limited by law what the group could do to the person. Participation ensured liberty. It was for this reason that Colden explained: “When Life and Liberty came in competition, indeed, I think our Indians have outdone the Romans.”[8]

Much of what has been learned of late about Amerindian political theory has been overshadowed by the multicultural debates surrounding history and education. Opponents of multicultural approaches fear that exploration into systems such as the Great Law of Peace will draw credit for the U.S. Constitution away from European antecedents. While few if any scholars claim sole Amerindian influence for the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin’s writings on the Albany Plan of Union, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, and other framers’ works make it clear that native American nations did indeed offer some inspiration.[9]

For the student of freedom, however, the idea of liberty in Amerindian thought should remain a worthy inquiry for its own sake. Some of what we find appears familiar to us today: tripartite governments, bills of rights, checks and balances. Other aspects of Amerindian thought—the truly gender-blind polis, the commitment to participation, the encouragement of self-cultivation and self-exploration—should challenge us as we approach the new millennium. The Iroquois and Cherokees of the past and today offer us alternate visions of freedom, other voices to add to our language of liberty. In the words of nineteenth-century theorist Matilda Joslyn Gage, it is fitting that we remember native American thought, for it brought the New World “its first conception of inherent rights, natural equality of condition, and the establishment of a civilized government upon this basis.”[10]


  1. Kenneth W. Cameron, ed., The Works of Samuel Peters of Hebron, Connecticut (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1967), pp. 37–38.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Cadwallader Colden, History of the Five Indian Nations Depending on the Province of New York in America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968 [1727 and 1747]), pp. xvii–xix. Colden would later correspond about the Iroquois with Benjamin Franklin, who pondered the native “confederate republics” while planning his own intercolonial confederation. Donald A Grinde, Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy, Native American Politics Series No. 3 (Los Angeles: American Indian Studies Center, University of California, 1991), pp. 93–110.
  4. Cited in Fred Gearing, Priests and Warriors: Social Structures for Cherokee Politics in the Eighteenth Century (memoir 93, AAA, vol. 64, no. 5, part 2, October 1962).
  5. Letter from Raymond Demere to W. H. Lyttekton, July 30, 1757. “Indian Books,” manuscript collection, vol. 3, William L. McDowell, ed. 1970, Columbia, South Carolina State Archives, pp. 391–92.
  6. Some pathbreaking works include Grinde and Johansen, Exemplar of Liberty; Bruce E. Johansen, Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy (Cambridge, Mass.: The Harvard Common Press, 1982); Rennard Strickland, Fire and the Spirits: Cherokee Law from Clan to Court (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975); John Phillip Reid, A Law of Blood: The Primitive Law of the Cherokee Nation (New York: New York University Press, 1971).
  7. “An Address ‘To The Chiefs of the Cherokee Nation,’” January 10, 1806, in Thomas Jefferson, The Complete Jefferson, Saul K. Padover, ed. (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, Inc., 1943), p. 478.
  8. Colden, p. vi.
  9. For a discussion of this debate in light of the evidence and charges of “political correctness,” see Bruce E. Johansen, Debating Democracy: Native American Legacy of Freedom (Santa Fe, N.M.: Clear Light Publishers, 1998).
  10. Matilda Joslyn Gage, Woman, Church, and State (Watertown, N.Y.: Persephone Press, 1980 [1893]), p. 10, from manuscript.

  • Amy H. Sturgis earned her Ph.D. in intellectual history from Vanderbilt University, specializes in Science Fiction/Fantasy and Native American Studies, and teaches at Lenoir-Rhyne University.