Was the United States Founded As a Democracy?

                In his splendid book The Lawless Law of Nations (1925), Sterling E. Edmunds says that governments may be defined as “groups of men possessing arbitrary power over other men.” (p. 426) If Edmunds is right, the idea of “self-government” is not a remedy of much merit for American Indians, for such a system would involve allowing a relatively small group of men (and women) from within a Native community to exercise arbitrary power over the rest of the people. For a number of Native nations, this is exactly what Native “self-government” has become.

                For generations now, the federal government of the United States has exercised arbitrary and abusive power—often referred to as plenary power—over Native nations and peoples. Today, the same federal government, in a spirit of good will, has decided that Native communities should move toward “self-governance.” And what does that look like? In a booklet entitled “Self-Government—a Tribally Driven Initiative.” The following statement is made in that booklet: “Self-governance is about change through the transfer of federal funding available for programs, services, functions, and activities to Tribal control. Tribes are accountable to their own people for resource management, service delivery, and development.”

                The booklet also explains that Native self-governance is a matter of providing Tribal governments with “more control and decision-making authority over Federal financial resources provided for the benefit of Indian people.” It is about a “new partnership” between “Indian Tribes and the United States in their government-to-government relationships.” The goal is a minimum of “Federal Intrusion and Involvement.”

                Historically speaking, however, we must look back and realize that an idea of Native self-governance based on management of “Federal financial resources” was never part of our Native existence before the invasion of our nations and our territories. Indeed, the booklet “Self-Governance: A Tribally Driven Initiative,” issued by The Tribal Governance Demonstration Project,” clearly recognizes this point. An introductory letter published in the pamphlet reads: “All our tribal societies enjoyed self-sufficient [free] existences for thousands of years prior to Western European exploration and colonization of this continent.”

More to the point, our nations and our peoples enjoyed a free and independent way of life before the invading Christian Europeans assumed a right of domination over our nations and our ancestors. The authors of the pamphlet acknowledge that a system of domination was imposed on our nations when they write:

“Self-sufficiency was replaced as the United States through its Congress, Courts, and particularly the Federal bureaucracy transformed, sometimes brutally, independent Tribal status into Tribal dependency. Over generations of Federal dominance [domination] and control, even some Indian people began to believe in this imposed dependency [domination].”

After acknowledging that the United States imposed a system of domination on our nations, the people who put the pamphlet together then strangely stated, “Our cultures provided the basic democratic philosophies embodied in the United States Constitution.” If democratic philosophies are “embodied” in the U. S. Constitution then was the United States operating outside its own constitution by imposing a system of domination on our nations and peoples?

Or is it possible that the pamphlet authors got it wrong because the U. S. Constitution is an instrument of empire, wealth, and domination, and not democracy? In his book The Rising American Empire (1962), historian Richard Van Alstyne has clearly documented the fact that the United States was founded as an empire. And according to R. H. S. Crossman, the United States Constitution was drafted as “the central organ or coercive authority, while preserving relative independence to the existing local authorities, the state legislatures.” (R. H. S. Crossman, Government and the Governed, 1969, p. 96) This “coercive authority” embodied in the Constitution was hardly based on the principle of popular rule, for men such as James Madison were clear in their denunciation of democracy.


Madison was concerned because:

James Madison

“There will be creditors and debtors, farmers, merchants and manufacturers. There will be particularly the distinction of rich and poor . . .We cannot, however, be regarded even at this time as one homogenous mass, in which everything that affects the part will affect in the same manner the whole. In framing a system which we wish to last for ages, we should not lose sight of the change which ages will produce. An increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour [sic] under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its [life’s] blessings. These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence [poverty]. According to the laws of sufferage [the vote], the power will slide into the hands of the former [the masses]. No agrarian attempts have yet been made in this country, but symptoms of a lively spirit, as we have understood, have sufficiently appeared in certain quarters to give notice of the future danger [from the masses]. How is this danger to be guarded against on republican principles?” (Crossman, pp. 96-97)

Madison also posed another question. How might the propertied class guard against the danger posed to the wealthy by what he called “coalitions” of the majority, laboring under the hardships of life? (Crossman, p. 97) Madison, whom many regard as one of the most important of the “Founding Fathers,” saw all communities as divided into the few and the many. “The first are rich and well-born and the other the mass of the people who seldom judge or determine right.” (Ibid)

As Crossman points out, the businessmen who drafted the Constitution succeeded in moving from a system, under the British Crown, based on the idea of a submissive people living in traditional obedience to the higher authority of the king and Parliament, to “a system of checks and balances so intricate that scarcely a drop of the popular wave [the common people] could trickle through. (Ibid.) Federalism, says Crossman, was “designed as a bulwark [barrier] against turbulent democracy.” (Ibid.) Were such ideas borrowed from the Native cultures of the continent? Obviously not.

And yet, for some reason, many Native people have bought into a mythology which portrays the United States as a “democratic” society, based on a system of governance “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The trouble with this simplistic slogan is that “the people” being referred to never not specifically identified. In fact, “the people” is a phrase sufficiently vague as to divert attention away from the fact that the term is meant to refer to the “rich and well-born” with whose future security and well-being Madison was so concerned. As Fernand Braudel observes in A History of Civilization (1987):

“The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the right to rebel and equality before the law. But the great idea which preoccupied and motivated the landowners, businessmen, lawyers, planters, speculators, and bankers—these ‘aristocrats’—was to safeguard property, wealth, and social privilege. America was new born, but it already contained wealthy people, whose wealth qualified them to lead others. As proof one only has to listen to the founding fathers, gathered in the Philadelphia Convention, or to read their letters and those of their like. Their basic assumptions are very clear. Charles Pickney, a young planter, proposed that only someone who possessed at least $100,000 should be able to be President. Alexander Hamilton called for ‘the impudence of democracy’ to be curbed. All of them, like Peggy Hutchinson, a Governor’s daughter, regarded the masses as ‘the dirty mob.’ A young diplomat and statesmen, Governeur Morris, declared: ‘The crowd is beginning to think and reason. Poor reptiles! They warm themselves in the sun, and the next moment they will bite. . . The gentry is beginning to fear them.’ And the lawyer and politician James Murray Mason acknowledged: ‘We have been too democratic . . . Let us beware of going too far in the opposite extreme.’ No one finally, was more imbued with the sacrosanct principles of democracy than Jeremy Belknap, a New England clergyman; yet he wrote to one of his friends: ‘We should uphold as a principle the fact that the Government derives from the people, but oblige the people to realize they are not fit to govern themselves.’ ” (Translated by Richard Maym, Penguin Books. Paris edition, 1987, Translation Copyright 1993)

Braudel concludes that there was an “order to be imposed in the name of liberty and equality, and it was a capitalist order” in which “power and responsibility belonged to the rich.” And what of those people at the bottom of the economic scale? As Braudel points out, “The others were granted the great concession of being protected against [from] the rich, as the rich were, conversely, against them.” Thus, when we talk about the U. S. Constitution, we’re talking about a government system—created by landowners, businessmen, lawyers, planters, slave owners, bankers, and speculators—which the wealthy created as means of organizing the use of coercive power to protect their property and their White privilege from the common  people. For us as Native people to now say that our Native cultures “provided the basic democratic principles embodied in the United States Constitution” is to perpetuate a falsehood while distorting the historical record to an unbelievable degree.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is the co-founder and director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and co-producer of the documentary “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed by Sheldon Wolfchild.