From the perspective of 2009, democracy in the United States is a great success. This makes it is easy to imagine that the march to democracy was the only path — that there is a clear line from the Declaration of Independence to the presidency of Barack Obama, and that democracy is the only fair society. But republican government was a risky choice at the time of the Revolution, and democracy was almost out of the question. There were more proven alternatives for running a society fairly. A look at two other contenders for control of the continent in 1776 — American Indians and Spaniards — reveals that democracy’s supremacy in promoting human rights was far from inevitable.
There were Indians fighting on both sides of the Revolution and others who tried to stay neutral. But whatever their choice, Indians did not fight for an American republic or a British constitutional monarchy but for their own goals, especially sovereignty. While American Indians were politically diverse, by the Revolution their most common governance structure consisted of multiple chiefs with limited power, advised by councils of elders. Chiefs led by persuasion rather than force. As a Mohawk man of the day explained, “We have no forcing rules or laws amongst us.”
For the British, a signed document was what sealed a treaty; but for the Indians they dealt with, a treaty had no validity without public acclaim. At a treaty negotiation, hundreds of people would gather for weeks, discussing and debating in formal sessions and over elaborate meals. Although not always reached, consensus was the ideal.
Historians and anthropologists have hypothesized that this extreme insistence on shared power was a reaction to the fall of earlier, hierarchical Mississippian chiefdoms, which had ruled much of North America from about 700 to 1600 A.D. Mississippian chiefs could be brutal. Weapons and art depicting violence are abundant at Mississippian archaeological sites. Some chiefs were buried with not only piles of luxury goods but also people, killed to accompany their leader in death.
Later American Indians may have inherited a distrust of centralized authority from their oppressed ancestors. Did Indians build democracies? No. Did they provide liberty and justice for their people? Often, yes. Indians built consensus-style government over time, in response to the hard lessons of history.
Indians were the most populous but not the only rivals to British-American occupation of North America in the 1770s. King Charles III of Spain saw the American Revolution as an ideal opportunity to extend his empire north. Although most people forget Spanish involvement in the war, Spain won battles against the British at Baton Rouge, La., Mobile, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla. At the end of the Revolution, European maps showed Spain in possession of most of what is today the continental United States: the entire Gulf Coast and everything west of the Mississippi River.
Immigrants from the new United States were offered free land in the west if they swore an oath to the king and converted to Catholicism. Knowing what we know now about imminent United States dominance, this might look like a bad deal. But thousands of Americans took the king up on his offer as land became scarce in the east. Royalist, imperial, theocratic, bureaucratic Spanish governance was not out of the question.
Surprisingly, the Spanish empire provided some freedoms that the United States would later take away when it expanded westward. Women in the Spanish Empire were not subject to coverture, the legal doctrine under which their legal identities were subsumed under men’s, first by their fathers and then by their husbands. In the post-Revolutionary United States, married women could not own property, participate in local politics, serve on juries, write wills, sign contracts or exercise custody rights over their children. Under the Spanish system, in contrast, women kept their names, property and legal identities. They were not equal to men of their rank, certainly, but they had legal rights unavailable in Anglo-American society.
Slaves in the Spanish colonies of Louisiana and the Floridas also had some rights and opportunities that they would lose under the United States. Slaves who felt mistreated by a master (beyond the “normal” allowed violence) had the right to appeal to the local military commander — and they sometimes won. Slaves could gain freedom through wartime service; thus hundreds served as soldiers, messengers, spies and laborers for the war effort. After the American Revolution, appeals became easier to win, and more than 1,000 slaves in Spanish territory freed themselves either by buying themselves or being paid for by a family member or friend. The life of a slave in Spanish Louisiana and Florida was not easy, but it was far less dehumanizing than the plantation system of the American South.
America’s founders did not want to become Indians or Spaniards. Many of them admired Indian freedoms but believed the natives had no real government. Not knowing of the Mississippian past, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his “Notes on the State of Virginia” that Indians had “never submitted themselves to any laws, any coercive power, any shadow of government.” While he judged that “too much law, as among the civilized Europeans” was worse than “no law, as among the savage Americans,” he believed representative government was best of all.
And the founders believed the Spanish were even more despotic than the hated British. Jefferson believed that the monarchy and priesthood left Spanish subjects “immersed in the darkest ignorance, and brutalized by bigotry and superstition.” He ignored the many black slaves and impoverished white settlers who voted with their feet, moving to Spanish territory for freedom and land.
Councils of elders and monarchies are not better than democracies, and usually are worse. But North American history makes clear that the details of a political system often make more difference in people’s lives than the form does. Our past should give us pride but also humility and caution as we proceed in the world.
Kathleen DuVal, an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina, the author of The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent and a forthcoming book on the American Revolution on the Gulf Coast.