The great Iroquois Confederacy has long been in eclipse, but the influence of the Iroquois idea has never been lost. By a curious chain of events Iroquois society became foundation of the Russian Communism as well as the American Republic. It contained germs of both newer systems, but both contain many elements which would have been repugnant to Peacemaker and Hiawatha.
At the Civil War's end Gen. U.S. Grant's military secretary was Brigadier Gen. Eli S. Parker, Seneca Chief Red Jacket's half-breed grandson. He was an old friend of the Union commander. In the white man's world he was a distinguished civil engineer and hard-shell Republican. After the war he was elevated to the Iroquois Council by his clanmatrons and took the name Deioninhagawe ("He-who-holds-the-door-open"). Throughout his life Parker remained essentially Iroquois in outlook and sympathies.
At the same time wealthy corporation lawyer Lewis Henry Morgan developed an interest in Seneca folkways. Morgan lived in Rochester, NY, was of fine intelligence, keen observer, economically conservative—[yet a] fairly liberal thinker outside of business. He was impressed by ideas of evolution just promulgated by Darwin, but never accepted the conclusion man descended from animals.
Fraternal orders broke out in a rash all over the U.S. in the mid-1800s—mostly small, rather unreliable companies rigged out in colorful regalia, secret rituals and roughhouse... doubtless to provide escape from boredom of home and business. Most long since disappeared.
In western NY [arose] the Grand Order of the Iroquois, [which] was short-lived, but was one of the pebbles upon which history stumbles. Morgan, a Catholic-hating, red-headed, corporation lawyer, was one of its founders, and author of its initial ceremony—which he called "inindianation"—an extreme of nonsense. Morgan became disgusted with the [lodge's] tawdry nonsense, [and] began to visit the nearby Seneca reservation to learn about real Iroquois rituals.
There he met [Eli] Parker, foremost Iroquois of his generation. They became close friends and confidants. Parker's friendship opened all longhouse doors for Morgan, [who] became absorbed in Seneca ways and familiar with the story of its federal republic.
As a result, Morgan published an epoch-making book, The League of the Hodenosaunee, perhaps the most comprehensive account of an aboriginal people that had appeared up to that time. [It] made Morgan one of the foremost ethnologists of his time, and still is an authoritative source. Parker's collaboration, of course, contributed enormously to its authenticity. Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, sponsored Morgan, the ethnologist, to correspond with persons all over the world in contact with primitive races.
It might have been better for the world if Morgan had gone no further. But he could scarcely help plunging in deep waters of philosophy. Evolution was in the air. This lawyer, without scientific training, proceeded to apply theory to society itself. Evolution is a continuing process; man is subject to the same laws as a trilobite.
He divided human history, of which he knew little, in evolutionary periods, just as geologists were then dividing the history of earth. There were, he speculated, three major ethnological strata—savagery, barbarism and civilization.
He believed each evolutionary period is represented by a culture of some primitive people. One was Iroquois culture. [Morgan] recast his excellent Seneca material in Ancient Society, which expounded his evolutionary idea. Major forces in social evolution, Morgan propounded, were development of family and property rights.
Morgan assumed human society evolved upward from a primitive, unorganized horde, not greatly different from a troop of monkeys, to a level represented by Anglo-Saxons of Rochester with church-going families and comfortable front porches covered with trumpet vine. This thesis involved him in a difficulty whose practical implications he probably had little idea. An honest evolutionist can hardly assert Protestant, Republican Rochester bankers with stock in NY Central necessarily constitute ne plus ultra of society.
The difficulty didn't bother Morgan, a philosopher with secure investments. The conservative lawyer appears to be at heart a romantic idealist. He came out of a society whose youths died by thousands to end slavery. He heard with uncomfortable misgivings the crying children in mill tenements. He contrasted growing evils of industrial civilization with the Iroquois way of life—and wondered what had gone wrong. Morgan's faults were many, but basically he was good and kindly.
Ancient Society was published in 1871. In London German exiles Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels believed the world's economic and social structure was entirely wrong. They sought to rebuild it nearer to the heart's desire, and closer to human nature. They searched avidly for anything factual to support their thesis that private property was the source of most ills.
Morgan provided Marx and Engels with that data, and a starting point for further research on other primitive people. They accepted wholeheartedly the hypothesis of social evolution. Resting their arguments firmly on Morgan's testimony [of] the Iroquois, they maintained progress, [for] a majority of mankind, had been from good to bad. At some time, civilized peoples had been in a happy state, but their societies were debauched by private ownership. The time had come, [they] said, to erase this mistake and start anew.
Marx already had published Das Kapital, the Bible of communism. At the time of his death he was planning extensive revisions in light of what he'd learned from Ancient Society. Younger Engels took up the unfinished work, and delved deep into other civilizations for more data. Out of this came the book which, next to Das Kapital, is Red Russia's most sacred text: Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan. In a few years after its publication this had been translated into every European language and Chinese. It was easy and interesting to read, compared with the ponderous tome of Marx. It rivaled The Rubaiyat as a quotation source for heretics and scoffers at convention.
"That is what men and society were," wrote Engels of Morgan's description of Hiawatha's commonwealth, "before division into classes. When we compare the position of the Iroquois with the overwhelming majority of civilized men today, an enormous gulf separates present proletarian and peasant from free member of old gentile society. Basest interests—mean greed, brutal appetite, sordid avarice, selfish robbery—mark the new class society. By vilest means—theft, violence, fraud, treason—the old gentile class society is undermined and overthrown. The new society during all the two-and-a-half thousand years has been but the development of a small minority at the expense of the great exploited, oppressed majority. It is Lewis H. Morgan's great merit [to] discover the prehistoric basis of our history."
Lenin maintained the Morgan-Engels theory of ideal primitive society, exemplified by the Iroquois, [and moreover,] the distorted flux of social evolution could be turned back into its proper channels by violent revolution. And we know what he did about it.
Both Ancient Society and Engels work are among the most widely distributed books in Soviet lands. Thousands of copies were distributed to soldiers during the last war, and Iroquois military virtues were held up as ideals. Hiawatha is better known in Russia than America.
Morgan is one of the Soviet saints. Strange fate for the Pope-hating, Republican, lodge-joining, Rochester corporation lawyer. It's an irony of history that two such men as Morgan and Parker collaborated to produce what has been called the Communist New Testament.