Revolution Museum funding comes largely from Indians in New York; Ben Franklin would understand

There's something about the funding for the Museum of the American Revolution that might make you do a double-take.

The $118 million (some reports say $150 million) museum will be built in Philadelphia, fittingly, and more than $100 million already has been donated or pledged.

A $40 million contribution is from zillionaire media (including the Philadelphia Inquirer) entrepreneur and philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest. Another $30 million will come from the state and there has been more than $20 million in miscellaneous donations and pledges.

The contribution that caught my eye as I read about the museum project's March 5 "opening salvo" ceremony in Philadelphia, however, was $10 million from the Oneida Indian Nation of central New York State.

With all the wealth of some people and institutions in Pennsylvania, and with this state's leading role in the American Revolution, it may seem odd to some that aborigines in another state are so prominent in the early stages of the funding.

"I think a lot of people are surprised by that," museum spokeswoman Zee Ann Mason said Friday when I asked her about reactions to the Oneida contribution.

It's not so odd for those familiar with the way the Oneida — and the rest of the six-nation Iroquois Confederacy — contributed to the creation of this nation and its inspired form of government.

The significance of that Iroquois influence is often ignored, perhaps deliberately, because it does not fit specious notions of how America came to be. It especially does not support the argument that our system of government and laws was originally based on a Judeo-Christian blueprint.

The most important player in the drama that set America's system of government in motion was Benjamin Franklin, and it started two decades before the American Revolution got into full swing. The Lehigh Valley area, it turns out, had an important part of that drama.

I'll skip a few details and go to the part where Franklin made one of a number of visits to the Lehigh Valley during the French and Indian War. On this occasion, he went to what is now Weissport in Carbon County to build Fort Allen, which he named for the founder of Allentown.

Franklin was then a devoted British subject, and the fort helped the British and their Indian allies defeat the French and their Indian allies, ending France's tyrannical and theocratic hold on much of North America. (King George III's restoration of that system in Quebec was one reason for the Declaration of Independence.)

It was around this same time that Franklin journeyed to Albany, N.Y., to help guide the Albany Congress of 1754, and submitted his "Albany Plan of Union," a proposal for the American colonies to be united in a federation. (The Oneida, by the way, were and still are based near Albany.)

And what was the model for that proposal? Some European monarchy where royalty ruled by divine right?

No, Franklin and other colonial leaders based it entirely on the system that made the Iroquois Confederacy successful for centuries, without a trace of Judeo-Christian inspiration. In fact, his ally, Thomas Jefferson, made it clear that the Iroquois system — separation of power, fair legislative representation for all subdivisions, and other obstacles to oligarchy — was far superior to anything in Europe at that time.

The Albany Plan itself never went anywhere, but the seeds of that kind of system were planted in the minds of the Founding Fathers, and the Iroquois concept of government was used to enact the Articles of Confederation, and then the U.S. Constitution a few years later. As recently as 1988, a congressional resolution acknowledged that our government, from the start, "was explicitly modeled upon the Iroquois Confederacy, as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself."

This is about a museum devoted to the American Revolution, however, and the contributions of the Oneida did not end with governmental models. The Oneida had a major role in that war, as well.

Some parts of the confederacy, notably the Mohawk and the Seneca, fought on the side of the Redcoats. (I grew up near the Cattaraugus Seneca Reservation south of Buffalo and spent time there.) The Oneida and Tuscarora fought side-by-side with the Americans. That's a measure of the Iroquois system's resiliency; the confederacy survived even after some of the six nations were temporarily at war with others.

The Oneida were instrumental in victories at Saratoga and Oriskany and transported food and other goods that saved the soldiers at Valley Forge. A failure in any of those three areas definitely could have cost the Americans the war, so they have a big share of this nation's heritage, and it makes sense that they want to be a part of the Museum of the American Revolution.

I missed the March 5 shindig to kick off museum planning. When ground is broken in a month or so for actual construction (they first must get city approval for the demolition of a building), I hope I can make it to Philadelphia, if only to say hello to the Oneida delegation.

I also hope some of the Seneca, and even wealthy Pennsylvanians, can make it, too.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays

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