deliberate discussion that respects a speaker and disallows interruption
is a longstanding American value. Benjamin Franklin noted it early
among American Indians and wondered if it constituted a better
system than the mocking, catcall style of the British House of
1783 observation by the "sage of Philadelphia" is worth recalling
at a moment when some pundits are suggesting going to the British
parliamentary approach for the next phase of American political
discourse arguably to apply an interruptive, point-counter-point
talk show format to the congressional and national dialogue.
call is understandable, given the lack of fruitful dialogue across
the political aisles today. But it is worth remembering that Franklin
cautioned away from the British practice and the "confusion" arising
from the disrespect of a speaker, "cut off in the middle of [his
remarks] by impatient loquacity." In contrast to this seeming lack
of manners, Franklin pointed to the "great order and decency" of
Native American oration.
Native manner of political address would not be the only political
example of interest Franklin cited about American Indians. Some
years ago, academics hotly debated just how far Native people had
"influenced" the political thinking of the American founding fathers.
usual, some proponents went too far, asserting an easily dismissed
line-by-line comparison between the Great Law of the Confederacy
of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois or Six Nations) and the U.S. Constitution.
Opponents, of course, eviscerated this favored straw man, then burned,
stomped and otherwise presumed all positions proposing an influential
intellectual vitality in Native cultures as naïve or politically
motivated. Ah, for the confusions of action reaction.
that issue as nearly always Franklin was clear and
focused on a united republic. For the Haudenosaunee Confederacy
chiefs, the dialogue was consistently about the exhortation to unity.
As the major publisher of colonial Indian treaties, Franklin actually
memorialized the key 1744 message from the Onondaga-Iroquois sachem,
Canassatego, to the colonial delegates: "Our wise forefathers established
union and amity between the five (later six) 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 much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you,
do not fall out with one another."
1750, while deliberating thoughts on the "necessary unity of the
colonies," Franklin mocked his fellow colonial leaders, presumably
the elite of the promised republic, with the much-published argument:
"It would be a very strange thing, if six nations of ignorant savages
should be capable of forming a scheme for such an union, and be
able to execute it in such a manner, as that it has subsisted ages,
and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like union should be impracticable
for ten or a dozen English Colonies.
who cannot be supposed
to want an equal understanding of their interests." (Letter to James
Parker, Philadelphia, March 20, 1750).
exhortation to gather American political forces is equally relevant
today, when the unity of the American Republic appears in peril
and in need of re-energized dialogue. The manner of its historically
successful undertaking by the value of careful, diplomatic
and deliberate discussion he attributes to American Indians,
of whom he writes that, "having frequent occasions to hold public
councils, they have acquired great order and decency in conducting
Franklin: "He that would speak, rises. The rest observe a profound
silence. When he has finished and sits down, they leave him five
or six minutes to recollect, that if he has omitted anything he
intended to say or has anything to add, he may rise again and deliver
it. To interrupt another, even in common conversation is reckoned
important observation of an American Indian value, which sustains
in most contemporary tribal councils and arguably proposed for American
political discourse, is vintage Franklin. The Indians, he writes,
"generally study oratory, the best speaker having the most influence.
" The founding father lets us know he compares it favorably
to the overseas approach:
different it is from the conduct of a polite British House of Commons,
where scarce a day passes without some confusion that makes the
Speaker hoarse in calling to order; and how different from the mode
of conversation in many polite companies of Europe, where if you
do not deliver your sentence with great rapidity, you are cut off
in the middle of it by the impatient loquacity of those you converse
with and never allowed to finish it."
clearly by the founding genius of the American Republic, collected,
reflective thought is to be respected. This is still a good first
rule for effective mutual understanding. We might do well listening
to Benjamin Franklin. The inherent unity and potential power of
good communication is an American value worth keeping in these loud,
Barreiro is assistant director for research at the Smithsonian National
Museum of the American Indian.