American Democracy and the Haudenosaunee

Perhaps the most familiar words in the U.S. Constitution are from the preamble:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

But did you know that similar wording was used in a treaty with the Haudenosaunee in 1520 – more than 250 years before the Constitution was drafted? Charles L. Mee Jr., author of The Genius of the People (Harper & Row, 1987), writes that South Carolina’s John Rutledge “always admired the Iroquois Indians, particularly their legal system, which gave autonomy for their internal affairs, but united them for purposes of war.” Rutledge was chairman of the Committee of Detail at the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and the committee’s task was to distill all the proposals into one cohesive document. According to Mee, Rutledge opened one committee meeting by reading from a Haudenosaunee treaty dated 1520, “which began ‘We, the people, to form a union, to establish peace, equity, and order…’” Rutledge “commended the phrasings to his colleagues – and so, in some part, the preamble to the new constitution was based on the law of the land as it had been on the east coast before the first white settlers arrived.”