Contributions of the Iroquois, 12 - The influence on Jefferson

karl h schwerin (schwerin@UNM.EDU)
Tue, 2 Jul 1996 15:12:17 -0600

Though Johansen talks at length about how Franklin was influenced by the
Iroquois, he also notes their impact on Jefferson. Jefferson likewise
looked past the frontier and found societies where social cohesion
emerged from consensus rather than resulting from the governmental apparatus
used to maintain control in Europe. Jefferson wrote that among the Indians,
"Public opinion is in the place of law, and restrains morals as powerfully as
laws ever did anywhere." This marks an obvious contrast to Europe,
where "Under pretence of governing, they have divided their nations into
two classes, wolves and sheep." ... "To Jefferson, public opinion among
the Indians was an important reason for their lack of oppressive
government, as well as the egalitarian distribution of property on which
Franklin had earlier remarked. Jefferson believed that without the people
looking over the shoulders of their leaders, 'You and I, the Congress,
judges and governors shall all become wolves.' The 'general prey of the
rich on the poor' could be prevented by a vigilant public.

"Jefferson believed that freedom to exercise restraint on their leaders,
and an egalitarian distribution of property secured for Indians in
general a greater degree of happiness than that to be found among the
superintended sheep at the bottom of European class structures"
(Johansen 1982:102-103).

"Public opinion, freedom of action and expression, and the consent of the
governed played an important role in Jefferson's perception of Indian
societies. The guideline that Jefferson drew from the Indian example
(and which he earnestly promoted in the First Amendment) allowed freedom
until it violated another's rights: 'Every man, with them, is perfectly
free to follow his own inclinations. But if, in doing this, he violates
the rights of another, if the case be slight, he is punished by the
disesteem of society or, as we say, public opinion; if serious, he is
tomahawked as a serious enemy.' Indian leaders relied on public opinion
to maintain their authority: 'Their leaders influence them by their
character alone; they follow, or not, as they please him whose character
for wisdom or war they have the highest opinnion.'" (Johansen 1982:113)

Karl Schwerin SnailMail: Dept. of Anthropology
Univ. of New Mexico Albuquerque, NM 87131

There are people who will help you get your basket
on your head because they want to see what is in it.
-- African proverb