Introduction: Throughout history, the development of governance systems has been a complex and evolving journey. From the early "thing" legislatures of the Vikings to the British parliamentary system, and various democratic council-type governments across the world, these systems have left a lasting impact on modern governance. In this article, we will delve into the historical roots of these governance structures, exploring how they influenced the birth of the United States and its unique presidential election system.
Viking "Thing" Legislatures: The Vikings, often associated with raids and exploration, also had a well-structured system of governance known as the "thing." These "things" were assemblies where free men gathered to make decisions, settle disputes, and establish laws. The term "thing" is believed to have roots in the Old Norse word "þing," meaning assembly or gathering. These gatherings were a vital part of Viking society, where consensus and discussion played a crucial role in decision-making. These peoples who were the first to govern themselves democratically did not have council chambers or capital buildings in which to do their deliberating and law making. Nor did they have offices where they would meet with lobbyists or constituents as spoiled people today do. As with assemblies in other ancient societies include ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient Israel, and countless other ancient places, these gatherings often took place in open-air locations like fields or hillsides, making them accessible to a larger number of people. The choice of location depended on the region and the availability of suitable meeting places.
They didn't even have courts as we know them today. The thing served as both the government and the court. At the thing, discussions were held on various matters, including legal disputes, land disputes, trade agreements, and other community issues. Decisions were typically made through a consensus-based process, where attendees discussed the matter at hand until an agreement was reached. This consensus-based decision-making was a key feature of Viking society and allowed for democracy.
The Viking "thing" was a vital institution in Viking Age Scandinavia, functioning as an open-air assembly of free men within a community or region. At these gatherings, decisions were made through consensus-based discussions, covering a wide range of matters, from legal disputes and land issues to trade agreements and political decisions. The thing featured a law speaker who helped interpret existing laws and facilitated dispute resolution. Notably, it was a platform for democratic decision-making, where attendees participated in discussions until consensus was reached. Over time, the decisions made at various things contributed to the development of customary law. This institution not only handled legal and political affairs but also played a role in regulating economic activities, showcasing its multifaceted importance in Viking society.
British Parliamentary System: The British parliamentary system, which has influenced governance worldwide, consists of two primary bodies: the Parliament and the House of Lords. The Parliament represents the elected officials of the common people, while the House of Lords includes appointed members, often nobility. This system, dating back centuries, served as a model for many democracies worldwide, including the United States. Democratic Council-Type Governments: Across various regions, diverse cultures developed democratic council-type governments. The Celts, ancient Germanic peoples, Asians, Native Americans, Middle Eastern societies, including Jews, Arabs, and Mesopotamians, as well as numerous African groups, all had their own variations of this governance style. These systems typically involved councils or assemblies where community members gathered to make decisions collectively.
The British Parliament, the Roman Senate system, and the U.S. Congress are distinct legislative bodies with varying compositions and operational mechanisms for passing laws and budgets. The British Parliament consists of two houses: the House of Commons, composed of Members of Parliament (MPs) elected by the people, and the House of Lords, with appointed members, including life peers, bishops, and hereditary peers. Legislation undergoes multiple readings and debates in both houses before becoming law, with the House of Commons holding greater legislative power. In contrast, the Roman Senate comprised appointed members, often from the aristocracy, who served for life. The Senate's role was advisory rather than legislative, as laws were proposed by magistrates and later ratified by popular assemblies.
The U.S. Congress, on the other hand, consists of two houses: the House of Representatives, with members elected by the people based on population, and the Senate, with two senators per state. Originally Senators were appointed by the states to represent the states. They were not elected to represent the people as they are now. Legislation must pass both houses and receive the President's approval to become law. The U.S. Congress has significant power in shaping laws and budgets, with its members actively involved in drafting and amending bills. Additionally, the U.S. Congress plays a central role in budgetary matters, authorizing and allocating government funds through a complex process of appropriations and budget committees. These three legislative bodies represent different historical and constitutional backgrounds, resulting in diverse structures and functions in their lawmaking and budgetary processes.
The Celtic System: The Celtic system of governance in ancient times was characterized by a decentralized and tribal structure. Celtic society was organized into clans or tribes, each led by a chieftain or king, often referred to as a "tuath" or "ri." These leaders were not absolute rulers but rather held authority through consensus and the support of their tribes. Decision-making in Celtic governance involved a council of elders and nobles known as the "tánais," who deliberated on matters of importance and advised the chieftain or king. The role of druids, the religious and intellectual class, was significant in Celtic governance as they acted as advisors, judges, and custodians of tradition and law. The Celts had a strong oral tradition, and their laws, known as "Brehon Laws," were transmitted verbally and were based on a sense of honor and justice. The Celtic system emphasized local autonomy and communal responsibility, contributing to a distinct and decentralized form of governance within their tribal societies.
The modern American system of governance differs significantly from the ancient Celtic system in terms of structure and scale. Unlike the decentralized tribal structure of the Celts, the United States has a stronger federal government with a complex system of checks and balances among its executive, legislative, and judicial branches. However, there are some similarities between the two systems. Both emphasize the importance of representation and the rule of law. In the case of the Celts, tribal leaders were chosen based on consensus and supported by their tribes, reflecting a form of representation. Similarly, the American system, with its elected representatives and senators, embodies the principle of representative democracy. The American system inherited the idea of decentralized governance and local autonomy from the Celtic system. The concept of states' rights and local self-governance was influential in the formation of the American federal system, where individual states have considerable authority over certain matters, akin to the autonomy of Celtic tribes. While the modern American system has evolved far beyond its Celtic predecessor, some foundational principles, such as representation and local autonomy, can be traced back to the ancient Celtic system of governance.
The Huadonosaunee: The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee, had a unique form of government that also influenced the development of the American system. Like the Celts, the Iroquois had a decentralized structure comprising individual tribes or nations, including the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca, who later welcomed the Tuscarora. The most distinctive feature of the Iroquois governance was the "Great Law of Peace" or the "Constitution of the Iroquois," which established the Iroquois Confederacy as a union of nations with a central governing body known as the Grand Council.
The similarities between the Iroquois Confederacy and the American system are striking. Both systems involved a central council where representatives from individual entities, states in the American case and tribes in the Iroquois case, convened to make collective decisions. The concept of representatives coming together in a council for deliberation and decision-making was a fundamental aspect of both systems that was also shared by the Celts. Additionally, the Iroquois Confederacy's use of a bicameral system, consisting of a Council of Chiefs and a Council of Clan Mothers, bears resemblance to the American system's bicameral Congress, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Iroquois Confederacy's influence on the American system is arguably evident in the development of the U.S. Constitution. Experts say Benjamin Franklin, among others, was exposed to the Iroquois system and its principles of federalism and cooperation during negotiations with Native American tribes. This exposure contributed to the framing of the U.S. Constitution, particularly in the structure of the federal government and the idea of a union of states working together under a central authority. The Iroquois Confederacy's governance model, emphasizing cooperation, collective decision-making, and the rule of law, left an imprint on the American form of government, making it an integral part of the country's historical and political heritage. Regrettably social justice activists today want to abolish this system which would erase much of the Indigenous American imprint on the American model of governance.
The Influence on American Governance: While the United States did not directly adopt its democratic or legislative system from Native Americans, there was one significant aspect borrowed from both Native American and ancient European tribes: the concept of electing a president. In the early days of the United States, the Founding Fathers were inspired by the idea that states should elect a president for a set period. This system mirrored aspects of the governance structures of the Iroquois Confederacy and other Native American nations. Similar to the Iroquois and Native American systems, where tribal leaders were chosen by consensus or representation, the American presidency evolved to involve an Electoral College. This group, representing states, elects the president, reflecting the belief that each state should have a say in the nation's leadership.
Conclusion: The history of governance is a rich tapestry of ideas and systems, shaped by diverse cultures and experiences. From the Viking "thing" legislatures to the British parliamentary system and democratic councils worldwide, these concepts have left their mark on the United States. While the United States did not directly emulate Native American systems, it did incorporate some of their principles, particularly in the election of its president. Understanding the historical roots of governance systems helps us appreciate the complexity and diversity of human governance throughout the ages.