American Democracy and the Haudenosaunee

When the Peacemaker brought the original Five Nations together under the Great Law of Peace, he demonstrated the confederacy’s strength in unity by first taking one arrow and breaking it, then bundling five arrows together and showing how the bundle could not be broken. Centuries later, Haudenosaunee leaders, frustrated with the difficulty of dealing with a dozen different colonial governments, urged their neighbors to follow their example and unify. According to historian Bruce E. Johansen, as early as 1744, Benjamin Franklin’s printing press was quoting Tadadaho Canasetoga’s admonishments for unity among the colonies:

“Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the 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.”

In August 1775, the Continental Congress, hoping to secure at least a pledge of neutrality from the Haudenosaunee in the war against the British, sent a delegation of treaty commissioners to Albany to meet with the Six Nations. John Hancock, president of the Congress (and first to sign the Declaration of Independence), signed the speech the treaty commissioners carried to Albany, which quoted Canasetoga’s advice from 30 years earlier:

“…the advice was good, it was kind. They said to one another, the Six Nations are a wise people, let us hearken to their Counsel and teach our children to follow it. Our old men have done so. They have frequently taken a single arrow and said, children, see how easy it is broken, then they have tied twelve together with strong cords – and our strongest men could not break them. See, said they, this is what the Six Nations mean. Divided a single man may destroy you – united, you are a match for the whole world.”

The treaty commissioners also invoked the Haudenosaunee symbols of the Tree of Peace:

“We live upon the same ground with you – the same island is our common birthplace. We desire to sit down under the same Tree of Peace with you; let us water its roots and cherish its growth, till the large leaves and flourishing branches shall extend to the setting sun and reach the skies.”