American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Franklin, Benjamin, Native American Influences

Title: Benjamin Franklin
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Beginning nearly two generations before the Revolutionary War, the circumstances of American diplomacy were such that opinion leaders of the English colonies and of the Iroquois Confederacy were able to meet to discuss the politics of alliance and the nature of confederation. Beginning in the early 1740s, Iroquois leaders strongly urged the colonists to form a federation similar to their own. The Iroquois' immediate practical objective was the unified management of the Indian trade and prevention of fraud. The Iroquois also stressed that the colonies should have to unify as a condition of alliance in the continuing "cold war" with France.

At a 1744 treaty council in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Cannasatego (tadadaho, or speaker, of the Iroquois Confederacy) told colonial delegates: "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 such Strength and power. Therefore whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another" (Van Doren and Boyd, 1938, 75).

Franklin probably first learned of Canassatego's advice as he set his words in type. Franklin's press issued Indian treaties in small booklets that enjoyed a lively sale throughout the colonies. Beginning in 1736, Franklin published treaty accounts on a regular basis until the early 1760s, when his defense of Indians under assault by frontier settlers cost him his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly. Franklin subsequently served the colonial government in England.

While Franklin first read the Iroquois' urgings to unite as a printer of Indian treaties, by the early 1750s he had become directly involved in diplomacy. Early in a distinguished diplomatic career that would later make him the United States' premier envoy in Europe, Franklin attended a 1753 treaty council at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At this meeting with the Iroquois and Ohio Indians (Twightees, Delawares, Shawnees, and Wyandots), Franklin absorbed the rich imagery and ideas of the Six Nations at close range. On October 1, 1753, he watched the Oneida chief, Scarrooyady, and a Mohawk, Cayanguileguoa, condole the Ohio Indians for their losses against the French. Franklin listened while Scarrooyady recounted the origins of the Great Law to the Ohio Indians.

Even before the 1754 Albany Conference, Benjamin Franklin had been musing over the words of Canassatego. Using Iroquois examples of unity, Franklin sought to shame the reluctant colonists into some form of union in 1751, when he engaged in a hyperbolic racial slur (subsequent evidence shows that Franklin had a healthy respect for the Iroquois): "It would be a strange thing," he wrote in 1751, "if Six Nations of Ignorant savages should be capable of forming such an union and be able to execute it in such a manner that it has subsisted for ages and appears indissoluble, and yet that a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies . . ." (Smyth, 1905, 3: 42).

At about the same time, Franklin became an early, forceful advocate of colonial union. All of these circumstantial strings were tied together in the summer of 1754, when colonial representatives, Franklin among them, met with Iroquois sachems at the Albany Congress to address issues of mutual concern and to develop the Albany Plan of Union, a design that echoes both English and Iroquois precedents and that would become a rough draft for the Articles of Confederation a generation later.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Bigelow, John, ed. 1868. Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co.; Boyd, Julian. [1942] 1981. "Dr. Franklin: Friend of the Indian." In Meet Dr. Franklin. Edited by Roy N. Lokken. Philadelphia, PA: The Franklin Institute.; Clark, Ronald W. 1983. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr., and Bruce E. Johansen. 1991. Exemplar of Liberty: Native America and the Evolution of Democracy. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Johansen, Bruce E. 1982. The Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois and the Rationale for the American Revolution. Ipswich, MA: Gambit.; Labaree, Leonard W., ed. 1959–Present. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.; Smyth, Albert H., ed. 1905–1907. The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Macmillan.; Van Doren, Carl, and Julian P. Boyd, eds. 1938. Indian Treaties Printed by Benjamin Franklin 1736–1762. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
 

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