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Kathleen DuVal: Life, Liberty and Benign Monarchy?

[DuVal is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, is the author of “The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent” and a forthcoming book on the American Revolution on the Gulf Coast.]

From the perspective of 2009, democracy in the United States is a great success. This makes it is easy to imagine that the march to democracy was the only path — that there is a clear line from the Declaration of Independence to the presidency of Barack Obama, and that democracy is the only fair society. But republican government was a risky choice at the time of the Revolution, and democracy was almost out of the question. There were more proven alternatives for running a society fairly. A look at two other contenders for control of the continent in 1776 — American Indians and Spaniards — reveals that democracy’s supremacy in promoting human rights was far from inevitable.

There were Indians fighting on both sides of the Revolution and others who tried to stay neutral. But whatever their choice, Indians did not fight for an American republic or a British constitutional monarchy but for their own goals, especially sovereignty. While American Indians were politically diverse, by the Revolution their most common governance structure consisted of multiple chiefs with limited power, advised by councils of elders. Chiefs led by persuasion rather than force. As a Mohawk man of the day explained, “We have no forcing rules or laws amongst us.”

For the British, a signed document was what sealed a treaty; but for the Indians they dealt with, a treaty had no validity without public acclaim. At a treaty negotiation, hundreds of people would gather for weeks, discussing and debating in formal sessions and over elaborate meals. Although not always reached, consensus was the ideal.

Historians and anthropologists have hypothesized that this extreme insistence on shared power was a reaction to the fall of earlier, hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, which had ruled much of North America from about 700 to 1600 A.D. Mississippian chiefs could be brutal. Weapons and art depicting violence are abundant at Mississippian archaeological sites. Some chiefs were buried with not only piles of luxury goods but also people, killed to accompany their leader in death.

Later American Indians may have inherited a distrust of centralized authority from their oppressed ancestors. Did Indians build democracies? No. Did they provide liberty and justice for their people? Often, yes. Indians built consensus-style government over time, in response to the hard lessons of history....
Read entire article at NYT