Forgotten Founders: Benjamin Franklin, the Iroquois, and the Rationale for the American Revolution by Bruce E. Johansen

Forgotten Founders by Bruce E. JohansenBacon Phat
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In this episode, we discuss:

  • Nothing! Because Julia was by herself. 


Show notes

An alternate view of American history


This book offers a different view of American history and the origins of our ideas of governance. I (Julia) studied American government and philosophy in high school through a rigorous program called We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution. I continue to work with a high school team in Indiana as a mentor in this same content. At one point I had planned to go to law school and enrolled in several law classes in graduate school. Even though I am not a scholar of political philosophy or history and don’t have a law degree, I am learned and read in these subjects and feel confident to discuss a short book about American history.


The reason this book means so much to me is that given all that I have studied and read about American history, not once was it communicated that Indians played a major role in the United States' founding. Traditional education teaches that the Founders were aggrieved by England and the Crown and wanted to create a new government due to personal vendettas. It also teaches that the earliest settlers were fleeing religious persecution and sought freedom. 


Using primary sources, Johansen shows that the reality was very different from what is traditionally taught. First of all, colonists viewed themselves as distinctly American and wanted to declare independence from England in part because they viewed their experience in the New World as unique and entirely different from life in England. They felt that the English had no claim to land in the New World since they had never lived there, were obsessed with work and primogeniture land traditions, and didn’t have relationships with the Indians who they believed would live side by side with them forever.

Colonists were friends with Indians

Johansen’s book offers first-hand accounts from Jefferson and Franklin of their interactions with Indians and the type of life Europeans espoused. They were disgusted with European life, which they felt was based around the personal accumulation of wealth and working endlessly without payoff. After meeting and interacting with Indians, they decided Indian life was preferable to European life and emulated it.


Jefferson advocated for small, like-minded communities because democracy is easier to achieve in them than in large, diverse communities. The Founders admired Indian societies because government was more successful since everything was done with unanimous consent, which was actually quite achievable. And negotiations within tribes were largely peaceful and civil. Indian leaders (called sachems) were admired by the Founders for their oratory skills and impressive presence. The Founders and Framers felt they legally and ethically purchased land from Indians and signed treaties, supposedly truly believing they would fulfill their promises and that Indians would coexist alongside (and intermingle and marry) whites forever. Manifest Destiny was not the goal of the country’s founders; this came a couple hundred years later.

Indians were more generous than the colonists


Franklin wrote of European societies compared with Indian:

The Care and Labour of providing for Artificial and fashionable Wants, the sight of so many Rich wallowing in superfluous plenty, whereby so many are kept poor and distress’d for Want, the Insolence of Office… the restraints of Custom, all contrive to disgust them with what we call civil Society.


Similarly, Thomas Paine argues that the Indians had none of the misery and destitution associated with poverty that European society engendered.

Ben Franklin writes of Canassatego’s experience with going to town on a Sunday with a white man. The white man told him that once a week the colonists met in “the Great House” to “learn Good Things.” Canassatego replied that while he was sure there were some religious things discussed in the church, there must have been some non-religious discussions, too. During a recent visit to Albany to treat beaver pelts for “blankets, knives, powder, rum, and other things”, he asked a merchant to trade and was brushed off. After the meeting, the price of beaver pelts had been fixed at three shillings sixpence a pound. About this, Canassatego said, “This made it clear to me, that my suspicion was right; and that whatever they pretended of meeting to learn Good Things, the real purpose was to consult how to cheat Indians in the Price of Beaver.”


Similarly, Canassatego said to Conrad Weiser:

If a white Man, in travelling thro’ our country, enters one of our cabins, we treat him as I treat you; we dry him if he is wet, we warm him if he is cold, we give him Meat and Drink that he may allay his Thirst and Hunger; and we spread soft furs for him to rest and sleep on; we demand nothing in return. But, if I go to a white man’s house in Albany, and ask for Victuals and Drink, they say ‘Where is your Money?’ And if I have none, they say, ‘Get out, you Indian Dog!’

The Founders liked the Indians and did not anticipate destroying their culture through Manifest Destiny


The Founders admired Indian society greatly. Franklin writes about Indian society: “All their Government is by Counsel of the Sages; there is no Force, there are no Prisons, no officers to compel Obedience, or inflict Punishment.”  Similarly, Jefferson writes that the Indians had not:

Submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power and shadow of government. The only controls are their manners, and the moral sense of right and wrong… An offence against these is punished by contempt, by exclusion from society, or, where the cause is serious as that of murder, by the individuals whom it concerns.


The Founders didn't think they would be responsible for eradicating Indian life in the New World. Johansen writes of Franklin:

In Franklin’s mind, there appeared to be no contradiction between orderly expansion of settlement and support of Indian needs for a homeland and sustenance. Looking westward into what he believed to be a boundless forest, Franklin assumed that the Indians would always have land enough to live as they wished. He thought that the continent was so vast that Europeans would not settle the breadth of it for a thousand years.


White people routinely left European society to join the Indians but never vice versa


Franklin writes of children who had been kidnapped by Indians and subsequently rescued but did not want to return to their original families. The same happens with adults. He writes, “No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” And we love, love, LOVE this quote a friend wrote about the Englishman Sir William Johnson, Baronet:

Something in his natural temper responds to Indian ways. The man holding up a spear he has just thrown, upon which a fish is now impaled; the man who runs, with his toes turned safely inward, through a forest where a greenhorn could not walk, the man sitting silent, gun on knee, in a towering black glade, watching by candle flame for the movement of antlers toward a tree whose bark has already been streaked by the tongues of deer; the man who can read a bent twig like a historical volume—this man is William Johnson, and he has learned all these skills from the Mohawks.”

Some other things that we liked from this book include:


  • If the Framers could pick between government and no newspapers or newspapers with no government, they would choose the latter. 

  • The Iroquois Confederacy united a bunch of Indian tribes throughout the Northeast, and they had a constitution, called the Great Law of Peace. The Framers were heavily influenced by the Iroquois Confederation, and the latter even encouraged the colonists multiple times to form a similar union to better defend the different colonies against their enemies.

  • Jefferson changed “property” to “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence because he disliked the concept of property as a right and abhorred the idea that individuals should be able to accumulate property when Indians believed that the earth couldn’t belong to anyone. 

  • Though Jefferson had a large private estate with slaves, he didn’t want people to be able to accumulate wealth personally and only managed his estate because he inherited it, along with a huge amount of debt that he spent his life trying to pay off.

  • Thomas Jefferson was the first to advocate for a progressive tax system.

  • Jefferson and Franklin believed public servants shouldn’t be paid.

  • Canassatego, Hendrick, and Shikellamy were Indians crucial to colonial society and relations between the English and French.


This book is an incredible hidden gem that should immediately supplant conventional history textbooks in middle schools throughout the country. Indians are rarely given a role in American history beyond teaching white people how to grow corn. Not only did Indians have complex societies with their own distinct cultures, languages, beliefs, and practices, but they also knew way more about successful governance than the colonists who are typically given all the credit for the creation of a unified republic.

Read this book if you, like we, were tricked into thinking Indians were backwards, simple people who spent their time dancing around fires and killing each other. The myths of Indian societies continue to proliferate, and what little done to combat them is carried out by young, college students seeking to dispel myths about modern Native Americans who live lives much more similar to Europeans than their ancestral counterparts. In fact, they often seek to convey the message that "we're just like you!" Books like these remind us that we suffer from shifting baselines theory when we forget that Indians used to be people to whom the most influential white people in the continent looked up and from whom they sought advice.