The Inspirations behind the U.S. Constitution


US constitution and flag by wynpnt at goodfreephotos

When I was in elementary school in Ohio back in the 1990’s, schools were first starting to do standardized testing of their students. Teachers had to set aside a couple of days in the school year for all the students in the school to sit down and bubble-in multiple choice answers in a cheap booklet printed on thin, easily-torn paper. The teachers and the school were going to be graded on how well we students performed on this boring, menial test. Therefore, as I sat in the classroom waiting for the Social Studies portion of the test to be passed out, the teacher told us all, “Okay, class, on question 14 when it asks ‘Where did the Founding Fathers get the idea for the Constitution?’, the correct answer is ‘B: The Iroquois Confederacy.’ Yes, I know that isn’t actually the correct answer, and you all know that, too, but that’s the answer the state wants.”

Yes, really, she actually said that.

I remember that specifically because I thought it was incredibly strange. I mean, we had just recently learned in history class that the Founding Fathers drew inspiration from many sources when writing the Constitution. Why was the state government wanting us to say that only one of those inspirations mattered? Looking back on this today, as a full-grown adult, it seems clear to me that someone in either Ohio’s education department or the company that made these standardized tests had a political agenda and was trying to get all the schools to teach to that agenda. I’ve talked on this blog before about how history classes in schools don’t actually teach the whole truth, and this is an example of why.

I’m not sure what happened to fifth-grade history classes in Ohio after I moved to California. Maybe future generations of Ohio fifth-graders grew up learning that the Founding Fathers were just inspired by the Iroquois Confederacy. Unless someone with a different agenda came along and changed the tests. Maybe now they learn that the Founding Fathers were inspired by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In any case, as I said, the actual truth of the matter is that there were many inspirations that they drew from when writing the U.S. Constitution, and today, I thought I would go over some of the main ones. Starting, of course, with:

The Iroquois Confederacy

Iroquois flag image by Himasaram and Zach Harden

Long before Christopher Columbus sailed west into the unknown, the tribes of what is now Upstate New York lived in a constant state of war. Then, three people worked together to convince the five tribes to come together and make peace: Hiawatha, a warrior disillusioned by the constant fighting, Jigonhsasee, a woman known for her hospitality toward guests from any tribe, and a spiritual leader known to history as the Great Peacemaker. This trio managed to get the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk to join forces in a federation called the Haudenosaunee, governed by a constitution that they called the Great Law of Peace.

In the federal government that they created, political power was based around clan mothers, a reflection of the Iroquois’ matriarchal society. Clan mothers had the power to appoint whomever they wanted to serve as their tribe’s chiefs, and could dismiss them at any time for any reason. One type of chief was the “Sachem”, who represented the clan at the Haudenosaunee Great Council, made up of 50 Sachems from all five tribes who would make decisions by consensus.

The American colonists would have been familiar with the Iroquois Confederacy, partly due to their close proximity, and partly due to the fact that the colonists and Iroquois were partners in the fur trade. In many colonial wars between the English and French colonies, the Iroquois usually sided with the English. Benjamin Franklin, in particular, spent some time among the Iroquois, and was inspired by their successful federation. In the mid-18th century, he called for the British colonies in North America to join forces in a federation of their own, in what he called the “Albany Plan of Union”. He was unsuccessful in convincing the colonies to adopt his plan – they already reported to London, and didn’t need an extra layer of government above them that they would have to obey the laws of and pay taxes to. However, when the colonies rose up against the British, the idea of the colonies joining forces was resurrected, as now they had a reason to stick together as they fought for their independence.

A few specific ideas that made it into the Constitution came from the Iroquois, such as having a Congress that represented all of the states, creating a balance of power between the states and the federal government, and barring any person from holding more than one political office in the U.S. government at a time.

Ancient Athens and Rome

Ancient Rome scene illustration by Edgar S Shumway

Of course, since the Founding Fathers were educated men of European descent, they would have been intimately familiar with the historical roots of Western civilization, namely, ancient Greece and Rome. These city-states developed unique (for the time) political systems that laid the ideological foundations for democracy and republicanism. Indeed, “democracy” is a word with Greek roots meaning “rule by the people”, and “republic” comes from the Latin for “public matters”.

The idea of democracy came from ancient Athens, a Greek city-state that had recently overthrown its king. Initially, after the monarchy was deposed, an oligarchy of the city’s wealthiest families ran things, but then infighting between these families led to factionalism that paralyzed the city’s government and wreaked havoc on the political process. To resolve this, a reformer named Solon advocated for the creation of a new political system that got every male Athenian citizen directly involved in political decision making: democracy. He believed that if every citizen, regardless of class, could vote and have a say in political matters, there would be no more factionalism.

Laughter image from Rawpixel

He thought WHAT?

As a result, the ancient Athenians would pass laws and make important decisions such as going to war or making peace by a vote of all the citizens of Athens. A council known as the “Boule” decided what went before the Athenians for a vote, and a committee known as the “Prytaneis” worked to implement the Athenian citizens’ decisions. Athenian elections to these offices were a bit different than what we are used to – technically, the vote only determined which candidates would be eligible to be picked in a random lottery. This was officially a mechanism to let the gods have a vote, though it also made it much harder to buy an election through corruption.

Many city-states across the ancient Mediterranean would be inspired by the Athenians and experiment with their own political systems. One of the most successful of these was Rome, a city-state that would grow to conquer the entire region and become one of history’s most famous empires. The Roman Republic, like the democracy in Athens, came about after the overthrow of a king. The Senate, the king’s council of advisers, took power for itself. Initially, they intended to keep power in the exclusive hands of the patricians (the Roman nobility), but after several revolts by the plebeians (commoners), a carefully-constructed political system that balanced power between different political groups was established.

The Romans would divide power between the Senate, the people, and the various elected public officials who would follow a traditional career path called the cursus honorum. At the top of the pyramid of public officials were two consuls, who would share the duty of chief executive. There would always be two of them in order to ensure that neither could become too powerful, and they would only serve a one-year term in order to further limit their power. How much can one do in a year, after all? Meanwhile, the plebeians would elect Tribunes of the Plebs, whose job it would be to oversee the Senate and the officials and ensure they didn’t abuse their powers. Most notably, a tribune could veto any government action that they felt threatened the interests of the plebeians. This was important, as all Roman elections, except the elections for the tribunes, were rigged in favor of the wealthy elite.

The idea of a government with no king, where the people have a say in their own government and choose their leaders, and where a careful balance of power that keeps any official from becoming too powerful, was clearly a major influence on the thoughts of the Founding Fathers as they framed the new U.S. government that they were creating.

The very same British that they were rebelling against

Redcoats image by Jerry Saslav

While the Founding Fathers had declared their independence from Great Britain, they did so in large part because they saw the British king and parliament as having violated their rights as Englishmen. There were many parts of the English political tradition that they absolutely weren’t about to reject.

While the Kingdom of England started out as just another feudal, absolute monarchy, during the Middle Ages the nature of the kingdom’s government and the role of the crown evolved. A rebellion against King John forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the first law that explicitly put limits on the king’s power, most notably by requiring him to get the people’s consent to raise taxes. This “consent” eventually took the form of Parliament, a body chosen by the king’s subjects that would meet to examine and decide on the king’s request for money. Over the centuries, Parliament would use this power to win concessions from the crown, forcing the monarch to accept further restrictions on his power or the granting of further rights to the people in return for approving new taxes. This process was very slow and gradual, and it was not always peaceful. In fact, at times it led to out-and-out civil wars. However, it was successful in securing such important concessions as a Bill of Rights and restrictions on the power of the king’s officials to lock people up.

This legal tradition found its way into both the original Constitution itself and the American Bill of Rights that was added to it shortly thereafter. Just as the British Parliament had two houses, the U.S. Congress would have two houses. Just as British laws need the assent of the monarch, American laws would need to be signed by the President. Just as all Englishmen would have the right to challenge the legality of their arrests in court, so, too, would all Americans. Just as a suspected English criminal would be tried by a jury of his peers, so would an American suspect.

The Age of Enlightenment

Perhaps the most important influence of all, though, was the political movement that was captivating the minds of many educated, middle-class Europeans at the time: the Enlightenment. People would gather in coffeehouses and in their caffeine-induced highs, they would apply the notions of science and reason that had powered the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution toward human society. Not content to just accept that the social order was the way it was because God said so or because it had always been that way, they would question and challenge and debate instead. Famous political philosophers like John Locke, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the Baron de Montesquieu would write about their ideas as to how human societies could be improved.

Well, the newly-free United States was the perfect place to experiment with putting these ideas into practice. The Founding Fathers were avid readers of the works of Enlightenment philosophers. The Declaration of Independence’s lines about how everyone is entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a paraphrasing of some of John Locke’s lines in his Two Treatises of Government. Indeed, the idea that a Declaration of Independence was needed at all came from the “social contract” theory of government – the idea that society agrees to have a government in return for protection from murderers and thieves. This theory, and its name, comes from the works of Rousseau.

It was Montesquieu who first proposed a government with three explicit branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The influence of his writings is why the Founding Fathers created a President, Congress, and Supreme Court. Similarly, Voltaire’s arguments that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion led directly to the First Amendment.

United States Constitution image from Wikimedia Commons

What the Founding Fathers did with the constitution they wrote was synthesize various ideas and inspirations that were floating around in the late 18th century into a single, experimental document that tried to create their ideal government. In return, what is most fascinating of all is just how much later constitutions around the world were influenced by the American one. Today, most countries around the world have a written constitution that lays out the creation of some form of legislative, executive, and judicial branch as well as a bill of rights that includes freedom of speech, press, and religion and protections for accused criminals.

North Korea image by Conan Mizuta

Now, the degree to which they actually respect those rights… well, it can vary.

This is what was truly, well, revolutionary about the American Revolution. Sure, the ideas it was inspired by had been around, in some cases for a while. Yet it sparked a revolution in the collective mind of the world, showing that, yes, we actually can run a country like this. Successfully. And that, well, it’s pretty inspirational.


One Response to The Inspirations behind the U.S. Constitution

  1. Pingback: The History of the Police | Cat Flag

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: