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Where do our roots, our desire to be a free people come from? While the path of history is quite long and deep, to fully understand our nation, our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, we can look to two vastly different events and parts of the world. This exercise is intended to make students aware of the concept of “human rights.”

The Magna Carta 1

One of four surviving copies of the 1215 Magna Carta. This copy is one of two held at the British Library. It came from the collection of Sir Robert Cotton, who died in 1631. In 1731, a fire at Ashburnam House in Westminster, where his library was then housed, destroyed or damaged many of the rare manuscripts, which is why this copy is burnt.

Before the founding of our country, our forefathers had already experienced the “Dark Ages.” The Medieval Inquisition started around 1184 and continued well into the 1400’s. During this period, tens of thousands of “non-believers” were tortured or killed. Non-believers were those who did not subscribe to a specific model of beliefs. In 1401, the King of England issued an edict to immediately arrest anyone who preached religious thoughts against the king’s brand of religion. A second offense resulted in immediate death.

Magna Carta, means “The Great Charter” and is one of the most famous documents in the world. Originally issued by King John of England as a practical solution to the political crisis he faced in 1215, the Magna Carta established for the first time the principle that everybody, including the king, was subject to the law. Although nearly a third of the text was deleted or substantially rewritten within ten years, and almost all the clauses have been repealed in modern times, Magna Carta remains a cornerstone of the British constitution.

Most of the 63 clauses granted by King John dealt with specific grievances relating to his rule. However, buried within them were a few fundamental values that both challenged the autocracy of the king and proved highly adaptable in future centuries. Most famously, the 39th clause gave all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial. Some of Magna Carta’s core principles are echoed in the United States Bill of Rights and in many other constitutional documents around the world, as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). Many other charters would follow. Surviving from the Magna Carta is also the right of free trade without custom restrictions between cities and the freedoms granted to the Church of England.

Hands-On Opportunity

Replica copies of the Magna Carta are readily available, produced to look like the original document itself. Let the students handle and try to read the script. Talk about how hard it was to inform and entire country like Britain without radio, TV or the Internet. This is also an excellent place to introduce a journal for your camp. A few pieces of leather, pages, leather lace and you have an heirloom in the making. Letting students write down their impressions can further serve to hone their skills on history.

Teaching Opportunity

The concept of a “right” is not easily understood by students. As you progress through the history of the American Revolution, it will be important to continually draw a distinction between a Democracy (majority rules) and a Constitutional Republic (the majority rules but cannot take away individual rights as defined by their Constitution). Have the students pick several “rights” that they would like to keep as part of the Patriot Class. As they build their list, have them look for rights that the entire group should follow and rights that may vary with the student. Some ideas to guide the exercise would be a right to have a snack but everyone needs to eat the same snack peanuts (discuss peanut allergies); the right to ask questions but should that right let them interrupt others; the right to be first in line or handle an artifact but who should get that right.

The Iroquois Constitution (Great Law of Peace) 2

We tend to think of any formal constitution as something contemporary, developed as part of the creation of the United States. However, the Iroquois beat us to that goal somewhere between A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1400. More recently, the date is estimated to be closer to A.D. 1450. 3 The Great Law of Peace, also known as the Hiawatha Wampum, was created by the Iroquois to stop neighboring tribes from fighting with each other. It is not a paper document, but a belt of beads made from the quahog shells and woven into a historical record through the patterns of purple and white beads.

The Hiawatha Belt 4 is made of 6,574 wampum beads – 38 rows by 173 columns and has 892 white and 5,682 purple beads. The purple represents the sky or universe that surrounds us, while the white represents purity and Good Mind (good thoughts, forgiveness and understanding). Hiawatha was a pre-colonial Native American leader and co-founder of the Iroquois Confederacy. Depending on the version of the narrative, he was a leader of the Onondaga, or the Mohawk, or both. To help the five tribes of the Iroquois that unity provided safety, Hiawatha took a single arrow, grabbing each end, easily broke it. He then gathered five arrows in a bundle and showed there was superior strength as a group. The bundle of arrows could not be broken. This concept would later be emulated in our nation’s great seal, where the eagle holds 13 arrows in its left claw. Unity of the colonies was one critical element of their success during the Revolution.

The belt symbolizes Five Nations from west to east in their respective territories across New York state: Seneca (keepers of the western door), Cayuga (People of the Swamp), Onondaga (Keepers of the Fire), Oneida (People of the Standing Stone) and Mohawk (keeper of the eastern door)—by open squares of white beads with the central figure signifying a tree or heart. The white open squares are connected by a white band that has no beginning or end, representing all time now and forever. The band, however, does not cross through the center of each nation, meaning that each nation is supported and unified by a common bond and that each is separate in its own identity and domain. The open center also signifies the idea of a fort protected on all sides, but open in the center, symbolizing an open heart and mind within.

The purpose of the Iroquois Constitution was to prevent tribal interference in everyone’s daily lives and meant to enhance individual freedom by separating their civilian governing bodies from the military and from religious affairs. The Great Law allowed differing beliefs among tribes to coexist and recognized the importance of one’s beliefs, no matter what their origin. There was outright freedom of religion in the “The Great Law of Peace.” While beliefs may have differed within tribes, all accepted the concept of one Creator of the Universe.

US Coat of Arms

Our early forefathers would have noticed 5 that the Iroquois tied their tribes together into a perfect union, much like we see in our own preamble of the U.S. Constitution. Both documents stress unity and providing liberty for posterity. The Great Law defined numbers of representatives, their powers, and requirements, just as our own Constitution does. The formal creation of an executive office was also defined by the Iroquois. But unlike our own Constitution, the election and choice were left to the clan mothers. The Iroquois had the wisdom to know that the mothers of their warriors were the ones to choose their commander in chief who held the power to make war and to place their children in harm’s way. The Iroquois Law defined checks and balances, created a centralized government. It included a guarantee of free speech, defined levels of authority between tribes and gave individual rights to each tribe just as we have done with our own States. Concepts like the forbidding of quartering, the unauthorized entry or seizure of one’s lodge, was also principle of The Great Law as well as in our own Article 3 of the Bill of Rights.

Hands-On Opportunity

Purchase a few quahog shells and some wampum beads, white and purple. Let the students handle them. Explain the process of stringing beads on threads and weaving them together. Possibly purchase a beaded belt with contemporary glass beads so they can see the construction method. Have a picture of our nation’s great seal to show the tie to the Great Law.

Teaching Opportunity

To help understand the concept of rights and freedoms, the following exercise is presented.

Discuss a narrow topic that is familiar with the group. It could be their desire to be treated fairly, not to be bullied, even to get less homework. Break into smaller groups and ask them to draw symbols that would explain their position to someone who does not speak their language. Have each group explain their drawing and why they chose the symbols that they used and how those symbols communicate their message. That is exactly what the Hiawatha Wampum belt did, used symbols to document a constitution and agreement between tribes.

Next Section: The Colonies Before the Revolution

Notes:

  1. Article by: Claire Breay, Julian Harrison. Medieval origins. 28 July 2014.
  2. Smithsonian. Article by: Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield. The Great Law. Fall 2004. Pg. 77
  3. Edward Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield. Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World. 140.
  4. Wikipedia. https://www.wikipedia.org/Hiawatha.
  5. https://www.mollylarkin.com/u-s-constitution-great-law-peace/
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