In 1989 I gave a lecture at the Library of Congress commemorating the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Congress. Although my lecture was solely about the First Congress, during the question period a very angry woman asked: “Why don’t you historians of the Founders give proper credit to the Iroquois in the creation of the Constitution?” I was surprised by the question, because I had never heard of the Iroquois’s involvement in the making of the Constitution. I suppose I should have known about it, because, as I later discovered, the House of Representatives and the Senate in October 1988 had passed resolutions thanking the Iroquois for their contribution to the framing of the United States Constitution. The angry woman was Laura Nader, the sister of Ralph Nader and a professor of anthropology at Berkeley. She was so infuriated that she wrote a letter to the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, enclosing an article by another anthropologist and suggesting that Billington “send this to Wood and educate him in the origins of the Constitution.” So Billington sent it on to me.

This is roughly how the anthropologist’s argument went: Benjamin Franklin was at the Albany Congress in 1754, where he, suave diplomat that he was, congratulated the Iroquois on their ability to bring five tribes together to form the Confederacy of the Iroquois Nation. Three decades later, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Franklin presumably passed this idea of federalism on to his fellow delegates at Philadelphia, and in this manner the Iroquois influenced the creation of our present federal system. 

Alison LaCroix, Professor of Law at The University of Chicago Law School, does not buy this bizarre notion of causality. In her book, The Ideological Origins of American Federalism, she relegates this notion to an endnote; yet in her endnote she does grant some credibility to this idea that the Iroquois Confederacy contributed to America’s conception of union before concluding that “on balance . . . the case for causation has not been made” (p 229 n 40). This seems to me to be much too generous: this strange case for causation ought to have been dismissed out of hand. LaCroix thinks of herself as a historian, and no historian would conceive of causation or influence in this simple-minded manner. The Iroquois and other Indians certainly contributed a great deal to early American culture, but ideas about federalism were not among their contributions.

Yet in her ambitious book, LaCroix has built a case for the causal origins of American federalism that is almost as fanciful as that of the Iroquois-minded anthropologists. Her case for the ideological origins of federalism is not simple-minded by any means; indeed, it is very complicated and highly imaginative, but it is based on often odd readings of an extensive body of primary and secondary sources. The result is a strange and disembodied account that is very different from all of the existing explanations of the origins of American federalism.