Democracy in the New World

by John M Repp

Many of our founders, like Franklin, Jefferson, and John Adams had extensive experience with native Americans as boys and young men. Adams in 1813 wrote to Jefferson that when he was a kid he used to go over to a native family’s wigwam where they gave him berries, apples, plums, and peaches. Native leaders visited Adam’s father’s house often. (From Thom Hartmann. The Hidden History of American Democracy: Rediscovering Humanity’s Ancient Way of Living (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2023, pp10-11)

Jefferson’s father was a map maker, and a famous Cherokee Ontassetě often visited his house from the time Thomas was nine until age fourteen when Jefferson’s father died. They conversed long into the evening, and young Thomas was invited to join them. When Jefferson was nineteen, he heard Ontassetě give his “great farewell address” in 1764 just before the native left for England to try and negotiate a permanent peace treaty with King George II. The Cherokee man was not sure he would return safely after a long trip across the ocean. Jefferson could understand only a few words of Ontassetě’s speech, but he understood the heart of the problem. The recurrent smallpox epidemics and a series of betrayals in 1721, 1754, and 1759 after peace talks with British colonists made the native leader want a more lasting treaty of peace. He thought the king of England could make that happen.

Our founders were amazed that the natives were able to have functioning societies without police or prisons. Franklin wrote in 1770: “Happiness is more generally and equally diffus’d among Savages than in civilized (i.e. European societies) societies. No European who has tasted savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” (Hartmann, p. 7) “White Indians” were a common phenomenon in America, and this was widely reported in Europe. These were people who somehow ended up living with natives, and then refused to return to white society. Sometimes, they were even “rescued” by whites but then they repeatedly ran back to the natives, preferring to live with them.

The earlier theory put in most history books was that our founders got their main inspiration to set up a democratic republic from the European Enlightenment, also called the Age of Reason, with thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement in Western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries catalyzed by the scientific advances of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who proved the earth revolved around the sun and Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who described the law of gravity.

But after the publishing of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021) we learned that the European Enlightenment was heavily influenced by reports that were coming out of the new world about native societies. A best seller in Europe entitled Curious Dialogues with a Savage of Good Sense Who Has Traveled, written by Baron de Lahontan, came out in 1703. Lahontan recorded dialogues and conversations with a Native named Kandiaronk. Kandiaronk was critical of European society, saying they were obsessed with class and wealth. The poor people were acting like slaves vis-à-vis the rich in their society.

He suggested that when Europeans were more concerned about their families and friends than about someone they don’t know, they could not be wise, reasonable, and fair. Self-interest as the motivation of each individual is taken for granted as normal in European society. Kandiaronk was critical of men whose main motivation in life is their own self-interest. (Hartmann, p.30) To us having grown up in American culture, a colony of Europe before 1776, this is a very radical point of view.

To quote Kondiaronk:” I have spent 6 years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that is not inhuman and I generally think this can only be the case as long as you stick to your distinctions of “mine” and “thine.” I affirm that what you call “money” is the devil of devils, the tyrant of the French, the source of all evils, the bane of souls and slaughterhouse of the living. To imagine one can live in the country of money and preserve one’s soul is like imagining one can preserve one’s life at the bottom of a lake. Money is the father of luxury, lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity—of all the world’s worst behavior.”

Thomas Paine whose pamphlet Common Sense (1775) kicked off the American Revolution, wrote in the book Agrarian Justice (1797) “To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man, such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets of Europe.”

In short, the contact between the British/French and native Americans in America changed the world. It set off a series of democratic revolutions starting with our own in 1776 followed by the French Revolution in 1789.