“All of these Lenape ideas are documented in Penn and Tamanend’s treaties and would later find their way into the Constitution of the United States.”
Editor’s note: This piece marks a further exploration of ideas expressed by its author, Jim Proser, in his November 27th interview with Olivia Malloy.
ome say that America began in slavery and racism, but that is not true. America actually began in mutual respect and “brotherly love” between early Americans and the native Lenape people in what is today Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States.
In fact, many of the most important ideas in the United States Constitution came—at least in part—from the Lenape people, a group of Native Americans who lived in the Northeastern part of what became the United States. For instance, the word “caucus” used to describe certain groups in a legislature originated from a word used by the Lenape for their council meetings.
In 1682, nearly one hundred years before the Constitution of the United States was written, the founder of the colony of Pennsylvania, William Penn, and Chief Tamanend of the Lenape caucused together under an elm tree on the banks of the Delaware River.
They negotiated a treaty that allowed Penn’s Christian Quakers and the native Lenapes to live in peace with one another. This treaty, the Treaty of Shackamaxon, (and several that followed) maintained peace in Pennsylvania for over 70 years during a period of transition and severe stress between the two groups. These treaties allowed the new colony to become prosperous and eventually form a model for the United States’ national government.
William Penn named the site of the caucus by the Delaware “Philadelphia,” meaning “Brotherly Love” in honor of the Christian ideal and deep respect that he held for Tamanend, the Lenape people, and their own constitution which they called “The Great Law of Peace.”
It seems clear that Tamanend was the greater contributor to this first treaty because he could speak English and had negotiated with other Europeans for years using The Great Law of Peace. William Penn could not speak the Lenape language, had no experience in negotiating with Native Americans, and had only a brief education in English Common law.
Despite his scant education, Penn had a brilliant legal mind and knew about the goodwill of the natives who had saved the Puritans at Plymouth Rock back in 1620. He also knew, in particular, about the Lenapes’ sacred commitments to personal freedom, religious tolerance, political sovereignty, and peaceful resolution of conflict from the negotiations of earlier colonists. These were ideas, particularly religious tolerance, that Penn had tried but failed to bring into English Common Law.
All of these Lenape ideas are documented in Penn and Tamanend’s treaties and would later find their way into the Constitution of the United States. Thomas Jefferson credited Penn with laying the proper foundation for America’s government. He wrote in 1825: “William Penn was the greatest lawgiver the world has produced, being the first, in either ancient or modern times who has laid the foundation of government in the pure and unadulterated principles of peace, reason, and right.”
Although Jefferson gave credit only to William Penn in this statement, early Americans gave greater credit to Tamanend for the generations of peace and plenty they enjoyed. They honored him with the title of “Patron Saint of America” and created a special holiday in his name.
They declared him King Tamanend, some say to insult King George III of England, and celebrated his holiday on March 1st for over 100 years. In 1778, George Washington and his revolutionary troops at Valley Forge celebrated the holiday of America’s one and only king, Tamanend.
However, perhaps the greatest contribution of the Lenape people to the American constitution was first recorded by historian Samuel Smith, who wrote of the Lenape, “Liberty in its fullest extent, was their ruling passion; to this every other consideration was subservient…they dreaded slavery more than death.”
In 1718, the Lenape threatened war if Penn’s Quakers allowed slavery in Pennsylvania. To preserve the peace, the Quakers began restricting slavery and eventually banned it. This was a beginning of the abolition movement and possibly the earliest action in America’s long struggle over slavery. Penn’s abolitionist Quakers went on to create the major northern terminal of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia that helped rescue thousands of slaves from Southern states.
Among the many contributions of the Lenape to our Constitution, their abhorrence of slavery made for their most important influence. The agonized negotiations that northern Abolitionists went through to get pro-slavery Southern states to adopt the Constitution reflect the Lenapes’ first and critical opposition to slavery.
In 1701, just before Tamanend died, he left this note for his old friend, William Penn: “We and Christians of this river have always had a free roadway to one another, and though sometimes a tree has fallen cross the road, yet we have removed it again and kept the path clear.”.
Jim Proser is the author of Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization and No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy: The Life of General James Mattis.