Explain how Benjamin Franklin thought the colonists could learn from the Iroquois indians. Was he right that it is impossible to learn from other cultures and to therefore improve our own? Explain.

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katwood001 | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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Ben Franklin did have a good friend who was an Iroquois interpreter, who sent Franklin the transcript from a 1744 meeting that gave him great insight into how multiple groups can work together for the common good.

In the 1744 meeting, delegates from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia met with sachems of the Six Nations of the Iroquois.  Canassatego, the Iroquois leader, said during the meeting: 

"Our wise forefathers established a union and amity between the [original] Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring Nations. We are a powerful Confederacy and by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, do not fall out with one another."

Ben Franklin was impressed by the ideas expressed by Canassatego and began looking into Native American culture and government.  In 1751, Ben Franklin wrote a letter to James Parker regarding the Iroquois League (Confederation).  

"It would be a strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies, to whom it is more necessary and must be more advantageous, and who cannot be supposed to want an equal understanding of their interests."

Although Ben Franklin wrote "ignorant savages," it is clear through his other writings that he had great respect for the Native Americans he was able to observe.  Most historians have decided that the phrase was not meant to demean the Iroquois but was actually a bit of sarcasm against the colonists.  He wrote several essays stating that Native Americans in many ways are as or more civilized than the states.  

Franklin felt the colonies could learn from the Iroquois in their ability to work together to form a solid coalition for protection and negotiation with other tribes. The Iroquois Confederation was formed sometime between 1570 and 1600, well before the revolutionaries of the 1700s began talking of breaking from England.  

The Iroquois Confederation was a confederation government aligning five tribes under a central government system.  Later in 1722, the Tuscarora joined the confederation.  The initial tribes were the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca.  These tribes lived in the middle New England area that would later become New York and New Jersey.  It is important to note that this was not the first, nor was it the only confederation of Native American tribes; however, it was the best organized.  The Iroquois, like many tribes before them, had united in order to stand against invasion.  

The Confederation was designed as a common council that was composed of the clan and village chiefs.  The tribes were composed of 50 peace chiefs that became known as sachems.   Each tribe had one vote and every decision had to be unanimous. When comparing this structure to the Articles of Confederation, the first government of the United States, the structures are almost identical.  Like the Articles of Confederation, the tribes did not always follow the guidelines of the council.  However, the strength that the Confederation gave these tribes, allowed them to keep the French, Dutch, and the English from settling their lands.  

Franklin wrote and published several books before the Revolutionary War regarding the Iroquois.  (1736-1762) In 1754, Franklin presented his plan, which would later become the Articles of Confederation, during the Albany convention.  A sachem called Hendrick was invited to speak at the convention regarding the politics of his people.  Franklin continually pointed out the strengths of the Iroquois during the debates leading to the revolution.  His ideas are compiled in a document called "Short hints toward a scheme for uniting the northern colonies." He proposed a Grand Council that was very similar to the Iroquois Grand Council.  This plan, known as the Albany Plan, led to the creation of the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and from there republics that have developed throughout the world.     

For more information, I suggest reading: Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rational for the American Revolution.  By Bruce E Johansen.  

As to whether Franklin was right.  All cultures have their strengths and weaknesses.  Continually societies, not just the United States, look at the strengths of other cultures and adapt those strengths to be a part of their own structure.  While it is said that humans do not adjust well to change, we constantly seek to improve thus explaining our evolution as a species.  To assume any one culture has reached the pinnacle of understanding or development, would deny that evolution and stifle any future discoveries, innovations, and philosophies that change provides.  

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