Liberty in Perfection: Freedom in Native American Thought

Article by Amy Sturgis.
Preacher Samuel Peters’s encounter with a free society was a memorable one. In 1781, he wrote in awe: “The conscious independence of each individual warms his thoughts and guides his actions. . . . Here is liberty in perfection!”[1]

Though he wrote in the shadow of the War for Independence, Peters was not praising the American colonists-turned-rebels. Instead, he had found life in the American Indian villages of New England to be the true experiment in liberty. He even went so far as to credit Amerindian rights theory as the catalyst for the colonial break with England, saying that the colonists “discovered that they themselves were men, and entitled to the rights of that race of beings; and they proceeded upon the same maxims which they found among the Indians.”[2]

Samuel Peters’s words exhort us to remember that we have inherited the language of liberty in many tongues. From the Greek Sophists and Roman orators to the Islamic economists and Patristic theorists, ancient and medieval thinkers led the inquiry into the nature of freedom. In the modern era much of what we recognize as classical-liberal thought flowed through nationalistic European streams: the realistic English tradition of law, the rationalistic French tradition of humanism, and the organic German tradition of individualism. Few scholars and students of liberty today, however, turn their eyes to North America to investigate the Amerindian contribution to the philosophy of freedom. Far from primitive or forgotten, the New World’s indigenous legacy of individual liberty, limited government, and legitimate law offer insights as fresh and relevant as the new millennium.

Of course native American thought cannot be adequately simplified into one monolithic river any more than European or Anglo thought can be. Specific currents are more easily identified and discussed, however, thanks to the persistence of languages, written and oral records, third-party documentation, as well as the survival of political institutions today. Among these currents are the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, of the northeast, and the Tsalagi, or Cherokee Nation, of the southeast. Together, they offer valuable examples of the first American republics.

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