The story of the American Revolution is well known. As the story goes, the 13 colonies came together to throw off the shackles of Empire to form a novel federation, in the spirit of peaceful cooperation and mutual benefit.
However, this story, whilst a compelling one, ignores one of the grim realities of this tale; the Articles of Confederation and the birth of the Union came about not through a shared worldview or a sense of camaraderie and kinship, but as a solution to the impending threat of inter-state war and conflict. Perhaps more importantly, it also ignores the roles of another group that laid the groundwork for this revolutionary transformation of the states, the Haudenosaunee.
In this brief overview, I lay out how the history of the North American continent provides us with crucial examples of how conflict and tensions were resolved through union, and how it can inform perspectives on world federalism.
The Critical Period of American History
The so-called “Critical Period of American History”, from the end of the Revolution to the signing of the Constitution, was a period of tension between the states. Not merely a war of words, it was the sort of geostrategic and geoeconomic conflict we see between rival nations today. The period saw states enacting protectionist measures and tariffs against one another, measures described as “commercial war”. In 1784, the states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania rallied arms against one another in a dispute over the territory of Wyoming. A weak Confederal government was so shackled by the sovereignty of the states that it was unable to effectively deal with revolts and rebellions. In short, the dreams of the Revolution were foundering upon the realities of inter-state jealousy, mistrust, and conflict.
How, then, was peace reached? Simply put, the leadership and population of the states came to realise that boundless sovereignty was an illusory concept not worth the price being paid. The weakness inherent in their political structure had allowed jealousy and anarchy to flourish.
In the most truly inspired moment of the American story, however, these states chose to put aside these issues, to put aside their ideas of sovereignty, and work towards their common good.
Against this backdrop of conflict, the states themselves chose to unify, to put their trust in one another, and in a common future. Peace was not the first step towards union; union was the first (and only) step towards peace. In the end, the fear of anarchy made the people of the states realise that ephemeral concepts of state sovereignty did not outweigh the wellbeing and security of the people.
The results are clear; under the new union, these states came to be arguably the most powerful force on earth. Today few, if any, would rather see an independent Massachusetts, or would value the sovereignty of New York over the prosperity and security of the United States. This step, once taken, was not seen as a compromise or a sacrifice, but an inspired moment.
It would, however, be wrong to see this act of union, undertaken by the American states, as unique, as an aberration. This would ignore similar remarkable successes by other groups.
Perhaps the most notable case here is that of the Haudenosaunee, better known to many as the Iroquois Confederacy (an exonym given to these people by European settlers). Like the disparate states, the various tribes that came to form the Haudenosaunee were at one point neighbours, but also rivals and enemies.
Whilst records on these conflicts are relatively scarce, it is clear that raids, skirmishes and conflict were the norm. That is, until such a time as there was a realisation that a common future was a better option than the chaos they lived with. Rather than looking to their neighbours and seeing enemies or rivals, they saw opportunities for a better and brighter future.
Five distinct tribes, the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, came together to form “The Great League of Peace”, in which the tribes acknowledged the authority of a representative central Grand Council. More than just political, this union was also social; tribes who used to view each other as threats now came to view each other from a familial perspective. Indeed, as Europeans colonialism displaced other native peoples, the Haudenosaunee even allowed new tribes to join their confederation.
In this act of union, the disparate tribes managed to become a regional power, even holding their own against European colonists for a time. These lessons were not lost to history, and legend has it that as the American states were drafting the new Constitution of the United States, they had representatives of the Haudenosaunee in the building, in order to ask them for advice on how best to structure their own union.
The Haudenosaunee deserve more prominence in world history; when the European powers were squabbling through the interminable violence of the early modern era, these tribes had already realised the value that comes from putting aside their differences for the common good.
What Can We Learn?
In light of these examples, we can reflect on our conduct: Should we still prioritise our state sovereignty over the peace and security of cooperation? Should we jealously guard the autonomy of The United States of America against trusting our allies, or even our enemies? Should we seek to protect what we have now, rather than aim to build better for the future? These are all questions that are topical today, yet history has shown constructive solutions.
There is clear evidence that such deep-set cooperation can bring real benefit in our modern era. The European Project has turned that region from a cauldron of conflict to an unprecedented bastion of peace and cooperation within living memory. Modern technology has brought us all closer together, socially and economically; this article is immediately accessible anywhere on earth.
Yet politically we cleave to our divisions; we hold flags closer than neighbours; we prioritise ephemeral identities over real human progress. But as these examples have shown, there is never a bad time to change this all for the better. History has shown that tension and conflict can be remedied by union, rather than being seen as antithetical to it.
Just as those people took the brave step of union that set them towards a period of strength and prosperity, so too should we. We must only ask; are we brave enough to live up to the legacy of our predecessors?