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Forgotten Founders


In FORGOTTEN FOUNDERS, Bruce Johansen has written an exciting book that broadens the basis of American history.

Calling on Benjamin Franklin as his chief witness, Dr. Johansen shows how the primitive, but surprisingly democratic and enlightened culture of the American Indian, clarified the thinking of immigrant colonists and even of the world beyond our shores -- a world tired of the elaborate hierarchies of kings and nobles and the inherited miseries of their subjects. To the European, America was another planet. Franklin saw in it the shadow of an imperfect but practical Utopia.

During the first half of the eighteenth century, the Six Nations of the Iroquois were our allies in England's war with France. They may be seen as the friends and equals of our Colonial statesmen. On both sides, there were those who spoke the other's language fluently. White man and red man sat together around the Indian Council fires and the record of what they said exists today.

from the Introduction:

This book has two major purposes. First, it seeks to weave a few new threads into the tapestry of American revolutionary history, to begin the telling of a larger story that has lain largely forgotten, scattered around dusty archives, for more than two centuries. By arguing that American Indians (principally the Iroquois) played a major role in shaping the ideas of Franklin (and thus, the American Revolution) I do not mean to demean or denigrate European influences. I mean not to subtract from the existing record, but to add an indigenous aspect, to show how America has been a creation of all its peoples.

In the telling, this story also seeks to demolish what remains of stereotypical assumptions that American Indians were somehow too simpleminded to engage in effective social and political organization. No one may doubt any longer that there has been more to history, much more, than the simple opposition of "savagery" and "civilization." History's popular writers have served us with many kinds of savages, noble and vicious, "good Indians" and "bad Indians," nearly always as beings too preoccupied with the essentials of the hunt to engage in philosophy and statecraft.

This was simply not the case. Franklin and his fellow founders knew differently. They learned from American Indians, by assimilating into their vision of the future, aspects of American Indian wisdom and beauty. Our task is to relearn history as they experienced it, in all its richness and complexity, and thereby to arrive at a more complete understanding of what we were, what we are, and what we may become.

from Chapter 3, Our Indians Have Outdone the Romans:

The Iroquois' extension of liberty and political participation to women surprised some eighteenth-century Euro-American observers. An unsigned contemporary manuscript in the New York State Library reported that when Iroquois men returned from hunting, they turned everything they had caught over to the women. "Indeed, every possession of the man except his horse & his rifle belong to the woman after marriage; she takes care of their Money and Gives it to her husband as she thinks his necessities require it," the unnamed observer wrote. The writer sought to refute assumptions that Iroquois women were "slaves of their husbands." "The truth is that Women are treated in a much more respectful manner than in England & that they possess a very superior power; this is to be attributed in a very great measure to their system of Education." The women, in addition to their political power and control of allocation from the communal stores, acted as communicators of culture between generations. It was they who educated the young.

Another matter that surprised many contemporary observers was the Iroquois' sophisticated use of oratory. Their excellence with the spoken word, among other attributes, often caused Colden and others to compare the Iroquois to the Romans and Greeks.

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Tags: Indian, ofthe, Franklin, American, world