American History · Politics

Federalism, Canassatego, & Sen. Mike Lee

Earlier today MSNBC’s Morning Joe hosted Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to discuss his new book, Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government.[1] Released yesterday, the book is Lee’s fourth since he joined the US Senate in 2011. If the title isn’t enough of a hint, then a cursory glance at Lee’s previous publications makes it quite clear that Written Out of History echoes a refrain that the senator has been singing for some time—there is too much power in Washington and not enough in our state capitols. He accomplishes this by recounting the lives of several “forgotten founders” who have been written out of our national narrative because their ideas seem out of step with modern America. Lee’s message about the consolidation of power in Washington is an important one worthy of consideration in the public forum, but unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) it compromises the history that Lee tries to tell.

Define Your Terms

In the interview this morning Lee talked quite a bit about federalism, an important concept in his latest book and in American history. But he never clearly defined the term. The closest he gets is an adapted quotation from “forgotten founder” Luther Martin, that “federal powers are ‘few and defined’ and those reserved to the states are ‘numerous and indefinite’” (p. 24). There is no additional explanation of this crucial concept which has attracted scholarly attention and filled the pages of books for over a hundred years.

There are three potential explanations for this failure to properly define and explain federalism. 1) Lee has not read enough about it to confidently define it in the book, 2) Lee assumes that readers already understand the concept, or 3) he hopes that readers will simplistically associate it with the national federal government. After graduating from law school Lee clerked for Samuel Alito—surely he understands federalism well enough to define it. My own experience with undergraduate students has convinced me that average Americans absolutely do NOT understand federalism, and that in fact they simplistically associate it with the national federal government.

Coincidence Is Not Causality

There is another problem with Lee’s discussion of federalism. He credits the Iroquois Confederacy with the idea and claims that Onondaga leader Canassatego inspired the founding generation of the 1770s to embrace it. This argument is based on a speech by Canassatego in the 1740s, in which he described the Iroquois as a confederation and encouraged his listeners, commissioners representing the colonies, to follow the Iroquois example.[2] This is not a new argument. Historian Bruce E. Johansen made a splash in 1982 by publishing an adaptation of his doctoral dissertation under the title Forgotten Founders. Johansen received criticism for his cursory treatment of Iroquois society, which was matrilineal and dramatically different from Anglo-European society. In addition, he (like Lee) relied upon a speculative and tenuous connection between Canassatego’s speech from the 1740s and the American Revolution of the 1770s.[3]

In 1744 Benjamin Franklin published Canassatego’s speech in his newspaper, and he subsequently made a comment about the Iroquois Confederacy. Franklin’s comment, that if Indian tribes could form a confederacy then the same should be easy for American colonies, is more about creating a confederacy than the substance of that confederacy. The Canassatego connection is even more nebulous. His 1744 speech was made within a larger context of British-Iroquois military relations against the French. In the mid-18th century, the Iroquois Confederacy was the strongest politico-military group along northern Atlantic seaboard; their support was crucial to the success of any European military plans in the region. The purpose of the summit between colonial commissioners and Iroquois leaders was not to share ideas about government structure, but to hammer out an alliance against the French. On top of this, Canassatego died in 1750, and no American founders attributed any of their ideas to him or to the Iroquois.[4]

Roots of Federalism

Members of the founding generation inherited a mode of political thought formed by the English Civil Wars of the 1600s and their own experience of self-government during the period of “salutary neglect” in the early 1700s. They credited their ideas to philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, like John Locke, and lesser-known critics of monarchical power known as the “Commonwealthmen.”[5] The system that they initially created was called the Articles of Confederation, which lasted from 1781 to 1788 and ended up being a failure. So even if Lee is right in attributing some authorship of American federalism to the Iroquois, he still faces the problem that the system first devised left entirely too much power in the hands of the individual states. Remember, the US Constitution was the second attempt at creating an American republic, and it came about as a result of the failure of decentralized government.

So what exactly is federalism? It is shared power between multiple layers of sovereign government. In the context of the United States, those layers of government are the states and the national (or federal) government. Too often people confuse federalism with centralization or national government, word usage derived from the policies of the Federalist Party of the 1790s.[6]

Fitting the Narrative

Lee has claimed that his “forgotten founders” have been left out of American history books because their ideas “do not necessarily match the modern narrative.”[7] I’ll pass on this great opportunity to follow a rabbit trail into the “textbook wars” and simply say that his comment assumes a conspiracy is afoot when the problem is really about coverage. He is talking about a level of detail in history and political theory that is simply more than an introductory course or textbook is designed to cover. The smattering of American history textbooks in my own home office offer a level of explanation and analysis of anti-federalism that is appropriate for an introduction to the topic.[8] Anti-Federalists and their ideas have not been forgotten—there are dozens of books and articles on the subject.[9] Most Americans simply do not read them because they take only a limited number of American history courses in high school or college. We can’t expect every American to be a historical expert, and the books marketed to the general readership as approachable works of history must take care not to mislead their introductory-level audience.

One final thought before I close this review: Who did the research for this book? I read the Acknowledgments and did not see any credit given to a research team. It seems that the senator would have us believe that he dutifully fulfilled his obligations in Washington, spent as much quality time as possible with his family, and plugged away at this book all by himself. It is hard to believe that he could have written four books in seven years without any assistance on top of his senatorial responsibilities. Always give credit where it is due—the Acknowledgments page.



[1] Mike Lee, Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government (New York: Sentinel, 2017). See the full interview on video, “GOP senator lays out case for US exiting Paris deal,” Morning Joe, 31 May 2017, at

[2] See an excerpt from the speech at

[3] For an example from the book’s second printing, see David Stineback, review of Forgotten Founders: How the American Indian Helped Shape Democracy, by Bruce E. Johansen, American Indian Quarterly 13 (Spring 1989): 192-194.

[4] For a great summary of the scholarly debate over Canassatego and the Iroquois influence on the American Revolution, see

[5] The role of Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers is familiar to most Americans. The classic account of the Commonwealthmen is Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthmen: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II until the War with the Thirteen Colonies (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).

[6] A great online resource on American federalism can be found at

[7] “GOP senator lays out case for US exiting Paris deal,” Morning Joe, 31 May 2017, at

[8] I have three often-used textbooks: Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty!; James Oakes et al, Of the People; George Tindall and David Shi, America: A Narrative History.

[9] There are biographical books and articles on each of the “forgotten founders,” many of them written since 2000.