Aztec: The Aztec Confederacy

Misconception of Aztec Society.—Condition of Advancement.—Nahuatlac Tribes.—Their Settlement in Mexico.—Pueblo of Mexico founded, A. D., 1325.—Aztec Confederacy Established, A. D., 1426.—Extent of Territorial Domination.—Probable Number of the People.—Whether or not the Aztecs were organized in Gentes and Phratries.—The Council of Chiefs.—Its probable Functions.—Office held by Montezuma.—Elective in Tenure.—Deposition of Montezuma.—Probable Functions of the Office.—Aztec Institutions essentially Democratic—The Government a Military Democracy.
— Orly

The Spanish adventurers, who captured the Pueblo of Mexico, adopted the erroneous theory that the Aztec government was a monarchy, analogous in essential respects to existing monarchies in Europe. This opinion was adopted generally by the early Spanish writers, without investigating minutely the structure and principles of the Aztec social system. A terminology not in agreement with their institutions came in with this misconception which has vitiated the historical narrative nearly as completely as though it were, in the main, a studied fabrication. With the capture of the only stronghold the Aztecs possessed, their governmental fabric was destroyed, Spanish rule was substituted in its place, and the subject of their internal organization and polity was allowed substantially to pass into oblivion.197

The Aztecs and their confederate tribes were ignorant of iron and consequently without iron tools; they had no money, and traded by barter of commodities; but they worked the native metals, cultivated by irrigation, manufactured coarse fabrics of cotton, constructed joint-tenement houses of adobe-bricks and of stone, and made earthenware of excellent quality.  They still held their lands in common, lived in large households composed of a number of related families; and, as there are strong reasons for believing, practiced communism in living in the household. It is rendered reasonably certain that they had but one prepared meal each day, a dinner; at which they separated, the men eating first and by themselves, and the women and children afterwards. Having neither tables nor chairs for dinner service they had not learned to eat their single daily meal in the manner of civilized nations. These features of their social condition show sufficiently their relative status of advancement.

In connection with the Village Indians of other parts of Mexico and Central America, and of Peru, they afforded the best exemplification of this condition of ancient society then existing on the earth. They represented one of the great stages of progress toward civilization in which the institutions derived from a previous ethnical period are seen in higher advancement, and which were to be transmitted, in the course of human experience, to an ethnical condition still higher, and undergo still further development before civilization was possible.  

The Indian pueblos in the valley of Mexico revealed to Europeans a lost condition of ancient society, which was so remarkable and peculiar that it aroused at the time an insatiable curiosity. More volumes have been written, in the proportion of ten to one, upon the Mexican aborigines and the Spanish Conquest, than upon any other people of the same advancement, or upon any event of the same importance. And yet, there is no people concerning whose institutions and plan of life so little is accurately known. The remarkable spectacle presented so inflamed the imagination that romance swept the field, and has held it to the present hour. The failure to ascertain the structure of Aztec society which resulted was a serious loss to the history of mankind. It should not be made a cause of reproach to any one, but rather for deep regret. Even that which has been written, with such painstaking industry, may prove useful in some future attempt to reconstruct the history of the Aztec confederacy. Certain facts remain of a positive kind from which other facts may be deduced; so that it is not improbable that a well-directed original investigation may yet recover, measurably at least, the essential features of the Aztec social system.

The Aztecs and their confederate tribes were ignorant of iron and consequently without iron tools; they had no money, and traded by barter of commodities; but they worked the native metals, cultivated by irrigation, manufactured coarse fabrics of cotton, constructed joint-tenement houses of adobe-bricks and of stone, and made earthenware of excellent quality.
— Orly

The “kingdom of Mexico” as it stands in the early histories, and the “empire of Mexico” as it appears in the later, is a fiction of the imagination. At the time there was a seeming foundation for describing the government as a monarchy, in the absence of a correct knowledge of their institutions; but the misconception can no longer be defended. That which the Spaniards found was simply a confederacy of three Indian tribes, of which the counterpart existed in all parts of the continent, and they had no occasion in their descriptions to advance a step beyond this single fact. The government was administered by a council of chiefs, with the co-operation of a general commander of the military bands. It was a government of two powers; the civil being represented by the council, and the military by a principal war-chief. Since the institutions of the confederate tribes were essentially democratical, the government may be called a military democracy, if a designation more special than confederacy is required.

Three tribes, the Aztecs or Mexicans, the Tezcucans and the Tlacopans, were united in the Aztec confederacy, which gives the two upper members of the organic social series. Whether or not they possessed the first and the second, namely, the gens and the phratry, does not appear in a definite form in any of the Spanish writers; but they have vaguely described certain institutions which can only be understood by supplying the lost members of the series. Whilst the phratry is not essential, it is otherwise with the gens, because it is the unit upon which the social system rests. Without entering the vast and unthreadable labyrinth of Aztec affairs as they now stand historically, I shall venture to invite attention to a few particulars only of the Aztec social system, which may tend to illustrate its real character. Before doing this, the relations of the confederated to surrounding tribes should be noticed.

The Aztecs were one of seven kindred tribes who had migrated from the north and settled in and near the valley of Mexico; and who were among the historical tribes of that country at the epoch of the Spanish Conquest. They called themselves collectively the Nahuatlacs in their traditions. Acosta, who visited Mexico in 1585, and whose work was published at Seville in 1589, has given the current native tradition of their migrations, one after the other, from Aztlan, with their names and places of settlement.

He states the order of their arrival as follows:

1. Sochimilcas, “Nation of the Seeds of Flowers,” who settled upon Lake Xochimilco, on the south slope of the valley of Mexico;

2. Chalcas, “People of Mouths,” who came long after the former and settled near them, on Lake Chalco;

3. Tepanecans, “People of the Bridge,” who settled at Azcopozalco, west of Lake Tezcuco, on the western slope of the valley;

4. Culhuas, “A Crooked People,” who settled on the east side of Lake Tezcuco, and were afterwards known as Tezcucans;

5. Tlatluicans, “Men of the Sierra,” who, finding the valley appropriated around the lake, passed over the Sierra southward and settled upon the other side;

6. Tlascalans, “Men of Bread,” who, after living for a time with the Tepanecans, finally settled beyond the valley eastward, at Tlascala;

7. The Aztecs, who came last and occupied the site of the present city of Mexico.

The “kingdom of Mexico” as it stands in the early histories, and the “empire of Mexico” as it appears in the later, is a fiction of the imagination.
— Orly

Acosta further observes that they came “from far countries which lie toward the north, where now they have found a kingdom which they call New Mexico.” The same tradition is given by Herrera, and also by Clavigero. It will be noticed that the Tlacopans are not mentioned. They were, in all probability, a subdivision of the Tepanecans who remained in the original area of that tribe, while the remainder seem to have removed to a territory immediately south of the Tlascalans, where they were found under the name of the Tepeacas. The latter had the same legend of the seven caves, and spoke a dialect of the Nahuatlac language.

This tradition embodies one significant fact of a kind that could not have been invented; namely, that the seven tribes were of immediate common origin, the fact being confirmed by their dialects; and a second fact of importance, that they came from the north. It shows that they were originally one people, who had fallen into seven and more tribes by the natural process of segmentation. Moreover, it was this same fact which rendered the Aztec confederacy possible as well as probable, a common language being the essential basis of such organizations.

The Aztecs found the best situations in the valley occupied, and after several changes of position they finally settled upon a small expanse of dry land in the midst of a marsh bordered with fields of pedregal and with natural ponds. Here they founded the celebrated pueblo of Mexico (Tenochtitlan), A. D. 1325, according to Clavigero, one hundred and ninety-six years prior to the Spanish Conquest. They were few in number and poor in condition. But fortunately for them, the outlet of Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco and rivulets from the western hills flowed past their site into Lake Tezcuco. Having the sagacity to perceive the advantages of the location they succeeded, by means of causeways and dikes, in surrounding their pueblo with an artificial pond of large extent, the waters being furnished from the sources named; and the level of Lake Tezcuco being higher then than at present, it gave them, when the whole work was completed, the most secure position of any tribe in the valley. The mechanical engineering by which they accomplished this result was one of the greatest achievements of the Aztecs, and one without which they would not probably have risen above the level of the surrounding tribes. Independence and prosperity followed, and in time a controlling influence over the valley tribes. Such was the manner, and so recent the time of founding the pueblo according to Aztec traditions which may be accepted as substantially trustworthy.

At the epoch of the Spanish Conquest five of the seven tribes, namely, the Aztecs, Tezcucans, Tlacopans, Sochimilcas, and Chalcans resided in the valley, which was an area of quite limited dimensions, about equal to the state of Rhode Island. It was a mountain or upland basin having no outlet, oval in form, being longest from north to south, one hundred and twenty miles in circuit, and embracing about sixteen hundred square miles excluding the surface covered by water. The valley, as described, is surrounded by a series of hills, one range rising above another with depressions between, encompassing the valley with a mountain barrier. The tribes named resided in some thirty pueblos, more or less, of which that of Mexico was the largest. There is no evidence that any considerable portion of these tribes had colonized outside of the valley and the adjacent hill-slopes; but, on the contrary, there is abundant evidence that the remainder of modern Mexico was then occupied by numerous tribes who spoke languages different from the Nahuatlac, and the majority of whom were independent. The Tlascalans, the Cholulans, a supposed subdivision of the former, the Tepeacas, the Huexotzincos, the Meztitlans, a supposed subdivision of the Tezcucans, and the Tlatluicans were the remaining Nahuatlac tribes living without the valley of Mexico, all of whom were independent excepting the last, and the Tepeacas. A large number of other tribes, forming some seventeen territorial groups, more or less, and speaking as many stock languages, held the remainder of Mexico. They present, in their state of disintegration and independence, a nearly exact repetition of the tribes of the United States and British America, at the time of their discovery, a century or more later.

Prior to A. D. 1426, when the Aztec confederacy was formed, very little had occurred in the affairs of the valley tribes of historical importance. They were disunited and belligerent, and without influence beyond their immediate localities. About this time the superior position of the Aztecs began to manifest its results in a preponderance of numbers and of strength. Under their war-chief, Itzcoatl, the previous supremacy of the Tezcucans and Tlacopans was overthrown, and a league or confederacy was established as a consequence of their previous wars against each other. It was an alliance between the three tribes, offensive and defensive, with stipulations for the division among them, in certain proportions, of the spoils, and the after tributes of subjugated tribes. These tributes, which consisted of the manufactured fabrics and horticultural products of the villages subdued, seem to have been enforced with system, and with rigor of exaction.

Each tribe was independent in whatever related to local self-government; but the three were externally one people in whatever related to aggression or defense.
— Orly

The plan of organization of this confederacy has been lost. From the absence of particulars it is now difficult to determine whether it was simply a league to be continued or dissolved at pleasure; or a consolidated organization, like that of the Iroquois, in which the parts were adjusted to each other in permanent and definite relations. Each tribe was independent in whatever related to local self-government; but the three were externally one people in whatever related to aggression or defense. While each tribe had its own council of chiefs, and its own head war-chief, the war-chief of the Aztecs was the commander-in-chief of the confederate bands. This may be inferred from the fact that the Tezcucans and Tlacopans had a voice either in the election or in the confirmation of the Aztec war-chief. The acquisition of the chief command by the Aztecs tends to show that their influence predominated in establishing the terms upon which the tribes confederated.

Nezahualcojotl had been deposed, or at least dispossessed of his office, as principal war-chief of the Tezcucans, to which he was at this time (1426) restored by Aztec procurement. The event may be taken as the elate of the formation of the confederacy or league whichever it was.Before discussing the limited number of facts which tend to illustrate the character of this organization, a brief reference should be made to what the confederacy accomplished in acquiring territorial domination during the short period of its existence.

From A. D. 1426 to 1520, a period of ninety-four years, the confederacy was engaged in frequent wars with adjacent tribes, and particularly with the feeble Village Indians southward from the valley of Mexico to the Pacific, and thence eastward well toward Guatemala. They began with those nearest in position whom they overcame, through superior numbers and concentrated action, and subjected to tribute. The villages in this area were numerous but small, consisting in many cases of a single large structure of adobe-brick or of stone, and in some cases of several such structures grouped together. These joint-tenement houses interposed serious hinderances to Aztec conquest, but they did not prove insuperable. These forays were continued from time to time for the avowed object of gathering spoil, imposing tribute, and capturing prisoners for sacrifice; until the principal tribes within the area named, with some exceptions, were subdued and made tributary, including the scattered villages of the Totonacs near the present Vera Cruz.

No attempt was made to incorporate these tribes in the Aztec confederacy, which the barrier of language rendered impossible under their institutions. They were left under the government of their own chiefs, and to the practice of their own usages and customs. In some cases a collector of tribute resided among them. The barren results of these conquests reveal the actual character of their institutions. A domination of the strong over the weak for no other object than to enforce an unwilling tribute, did not even tend to the formation of a nation. If organized in gentes, there was no way for an individual to become a member of the government except through a gens, and no way for the admission of a gens except by its incorporation among the Aztec, Tezcucan, or Tlacopan gentes. The plan ascribed to Romulus of removing the gentes of conquered Latin tribes to Rome might have been resorted to by the Aztec confederacy with respect to the tribes overrun; but they were not sufficiently advanced to form such a conception, even though the barrier of language could have been obviated. Neither could colonists for the same reason, if sent among them, have so far assimilated the conquered tribes as to prepare them for incorporation in the Aztec social system. As it was, the confederacy gained no strength by the terrorism it created; or by holding these tribes under burdens, inspired with enmity and ever ready to revolt. It seems, however, that they used the military bands of subjugated tribes in some cases, and shared with them the spoils. All the Aztecs could do, after forming the confederacy, was to expand it over the remaining Nahuatlac tribes. This they were unable to accomplish. The Xochimilcas and Chalcans were not constituent members of the confederacy, but they enjoyed a nominal independence, though tributary.

In these several directions the dominion of the Aztec confederacy did not extend a hundred miles beyond the valley of Mexico, a portion of which surrounding area was undoubtedly neutral ground separating the confederacy from perpetual enemies. Out of such limited materials the kingdom of Mexico of the Spanish chronicles was fabricated, and afterwards magnified into the Aztec empire of current history.
— Orly

This is about all that can now be discovered of the material basis of the so-called kingdom or empire of the Aztecs. The confederacy was confronted by hostile and independent tribes on the west, northwest, northeast, east, and southeast sides: as witness, the Mechoacans on the west, the Otomies on the northwest, (scattered bands of the Otomies near the valley had been placed under tribute), the Chichimecs or wild tribes north of the Otomies, the Meztitlans on the northeast, the Tlascalans on the east, the Cholulans and Huexotzincos on the southeast, and beyond them the tribes of the Tabasco, the tribes of Chiapas, and the Zapotecs. In these several directions the dominion of the Aztec confederacy did not extend a hundred miles beyond the valley of Mexico, a portion of which surrounding area was undoubtedly neutral ground separating the confederacy from perpetual enemies. Out of such limited materials the kingdom of Mexico of the Spanish chronicles was fabricated, and afterwards magnified into the Aztec empire of current history.

A few words seem to be necessary concerning the population of the valley and of the pueblo of Mexico. No means exist for ascertaining the number of the people in the five Nahuatlac tribes who inhabited the valley. Any estimate must be conjectural. As a conjecture then, based upon what is known of their horticulture, their means of subsistence, their institutions, their limited area, and not forgetting the tribute they received, two hundred and fifty thousand persons in the aggregate would probably be an excessive estimate. 

It will be unnecessary to discuss the position and relations of the valley tribes beyond the suggestions made. The Aztec monarchy should be dismissed from American aboriginal history, not only as delusive, but as a misrepresentation of the Indians, who had neither developed nor invented monarchical institutions. The government they formed was a confederacy of tribes, and nothing more; and probably not equal in plan and symmetry with that of the Iroquois. In dealing with this organization, War-chief, Sachem, and Chief will be sufficient to distinguish their official persons.

The pueblo of Mexico was the largest in America. Romantically situated in the midst of an artificial lake, its large joint-tenement houses plastered over with gypsum, which made them a brilliant white, and approached by causeways, it presented to the Spaniards, in the distance, a striking and enchanting spectacle. It was a revelation of an ancient society lying two ethnical periods back of European society, and eminently calculated, from its orderly plan of life, to awaken curiosity and inspire enthusiasm. A certain amount of extravagance of opinion was unavoidable.

A few particulars have been named tending to show the extent of Aztec advancement to which some others may now be added. Ornamental gardens were found, magazines of weapons and of military costumes, improved apparel, manufactured fabrics of cotton of superior workmanship, improved implements and utensils, and an increased variety of food; picture-writing, used chiefly to indicate the tribute in kind each subjugated village was to pay; a calendar for measuring time, and open markets for the barter of commodities.

Administrative offices had been created to meet the demands of a growing municipal life; a priesthood, with a temple worship and a ritual including human sacrifices, had been established. The office of head war-chief had also risen into increased importance. These, and other circumstances of their condition, not necessary to be detailed, imply a corresponding development of their institutions. 

With these preliminary suggestions made, the three most important and most difficult questions with respect to the Aztec social system, remain to be considered. They relate first, to the existence of Gentes and Phratries; second, the existence and functions of the Council of Chiefs; and, third, the existence and functions of the office of General Military Commander, held by Montezuma.

I. The Existence of Gentes and Phratries.

It may seem singular that the early Spanish writers did not discover the Aztec gentes, if in fact they existed; but the case was nearly the same with the Iroquois under the observation of our own people more than two hundred years. The existence among them of clans, named after animals, was pointed out at an early day, but without suspecting that it was the unit of a social system upon which both the tribe and the confederacy rested.  The failure of the Spanish investigators to notice the existence of the gentile organization among the tribes of Spanish America would afford no proof of its non-existence; but if it did exist, it would simply prove that their work was superficial in this respect.

There is a large amount of indirect and fragmentary evidence in the Spanish writers pointing both to the gens and the phratry, some of which will now be considered. Reference has been made to the frequent use of the term “kindred” by Herrera, showing that groups of persons were noticed who were bound together by affinities of blood. This, from the size of the group, seems to require a gens. The term “lineage” is sometimes used to indicate a still larger group, and implying a phratry.

The pueblo of Mexico was divided geographically into four quarters, each of which was occupied by a lineage, a body of people more nearly related by consanguinity among themselves than they were to the inhabitants of the other quarters. Presumptively, each lineage was a phratry. Each quarter was again subdivided, and each local subdivision was occupied by a community of persons bound together by some common tie. Presumptively, this community of persons was a gens. Turning to the kindred tribe of Tlascalans, the same facts nearly re-appear. Their pueblo was divided into four quarters, each occupied by a lineage. Each had its own Teuctli or head war-chief, its distinctive military costume, and its own standard and blazon. As one people they were under the government of a council of chiefs, which the Spaniards honored with the name of the Tlascalan senate. Cholula, in like manner, was divided into six quarters, called wards by Herrera, which leads to the same inference. The Aztecs in their social subdivisions having arranged among themselves the parts of the pueblo they were severally to occupy, these geographical districts would result from their mode of settlement. If the brief account of these quarters at the foundation of Mexico, given by Herrera, who follows Acosta, is read in the light of this explanation, the truth of the matter will be brought quite near. After mentioning the building of a “chapel of lime and stone for the idol,” Herrera proceeds as follows: “When this was done, the idol ordered a priest to bid the chief men divide themselves, with their kindred and followers, into four wards or quarters, leaving the house that had been built for him to rest in the middle, and each party to build as they liked best. These are the four quarters of Mexico now called St. John, St. Mary the Round, St. Paul and St. Sebastian. That division being accordingly made, their idol again directed them to distribute among themselves the gods he should name, and each ward to appoint peculiar places where the gods should be worshiped; and thus every quarter has several smaller wards in it according to the number of their gods this idol called them to adore.... Thus Mexico, Tenochtitlan, was founded.... When the aforesaid partition was made, those who thought themselves injured, with their kindred and followers, went away to seek some other place,” namely, Tlatelulco, which was adjacent. It is a reasonable interpretation of this language that they divided by kin, first into four general divisions, and these into smaller subdivisions, which is the usual formula for stating results. But the actual process was the exact reverse; namely, each body of kindred located in an area by themselves, and the several bodies in such a way as to bring those most nearly related in geographical connection with each other. Assuming that the lowest subdivision was a gens, and that each quarter was occupied by a phratry, composed of related gentes, the primary distribution of the Aztecs in their pueblo is perfectly intelligible. Without this assumption it is incapable of a satisfactory explanation. When a people, organized in gentes, phratries and tribes, settled in a town or city, they located by gentes and by tribes, as a necessary consequence of their social organization. The Grecian and Roman tribes settled in their cities in this manner. For example, the three Roman tribes were organized in gentes and curiæ, the curia being the analogue of the phratry; and they settled at Rome by gentes, by curias and by tribes. The Ramnes occupied the Palatine Hill. The Tities were mostly on the Quirinal, and the Luceres mostly on the Esquiline. If the Aztecs were in gentes and phratries, having but one tribe, they would of necessity be found in as many quarters as they had phratries, with each gens of the same phratry in the main locally by itself. As husband and wife were of different gentes, and the children were of the gens of the father or mother as descent was in the male or the female line, the preponderating number in each locality would be of the same gens.

Their military organization was based upon these social divisions. As Nestor advised Agamemnon to arrange the troops by phratries and by tribes, the Aztecs seem to have arranged themselves by gentes and by phratries. In the Mexican Chronicles, by the native author Tezozomoc (for a reference to the following passage, in which I am indebted to my friend Mr. Ad. F. Bandelier, of Highland, Illinois, who is now engaged upon its translation), a proposed invasion of Michoacan is referred to. Axaycatl “spoke to the Mexican captains Tlacatecatl and Tlacochcalcatl, and to all the others, and inquired whether all the Mexicans were prepared, after the usages and customs of each ward, each one with its captains; and if so that they should begin to march, and that all were to reunite at Matlatzinco Toluca.” It indicates that the military organization was by gentes and by phratries.

An inference of the existence of Aztec gentes arises also from their land tenure. Clavigero remarks that “the lands which were called Altepetlalli [altepetl = pueblo] that is, those of the communities of cities and villages, were divided into as many parts as there were districts in a city, and every district possessed its own part entirely distinct from, and independent of every other. These lands could not be alienated by any means whatever.” In each of these communities we are led to recognize a gens, whose localization was a necessary consequence of their social system. Clavigero puts the districts for the community, whereas it was the latter which made the district, and which owned the lands in common. The element of kin which united each community, omitted by Clavigero, is supplied by Herrera. “There were other lords, called major parents [sachems], whose landed property all belonged to one lineage [gens], which lived in one district, and there were many of them when the lands were distributed at the time New Spain was peopled; and each lineage received its own, and have possessed them until now; and these lands did not belong to any one in particular, but to all in common, and he who possessed them could not sell them, although he enjoyed them for life and left them to his sons and heirs; and if a house died out they were left to the nearest parent to whom they were given and to no other, who administered the same district or lineage.” In this remarkable statement our author was puzzled to harmonize the facts with the prevailing theory of Aztec institutions. He presents to us an Aztec lord who held the fee of the land as a feudal proprietor, and a title of rank pertaining to it, both of which he transmitted to his son and heir. But in obedience to truth he states the essential fact that the lands belonged to a body of consanguinei of whom he is styled the major parent, i. e., he was the sachem, it may be supposed, of the gens, the latter owning these lands in common. The suggestion that he held the lands in trust means nothing. They found Indian chiefs connected with gentes, each gens owning a body of lands in common, and when the chief died, his place was filled by his son, according to Herrera. In so far it may have been analogous to a Spanish estate and title; and the misconception resulted from a want of knowledge of the nature and tenure of the office of chief. In some cases they found the son did not succeed his father, but the office went to some other person; hence the further statement, “if a house (alguna casa, another feudal feature) died out, they [the lands] were left to the nearest major parent;” i. e., another person was elected sachem, as near as any conclusion can be drawn from the language. What little has been given to us by the Spanish writers concerning Indian chiefs, and the land tenure of the tribes is corrupted by the use of language adapted to feudal institutions that had no existence among them. In this lineage we are warranted in recognizing an Aztec gens; and in this lord an Aztec sachem, whose office was hereditary in the gens, in the sense elsewhere stated, and elective among its members. If descent was in the male line, the choice would fall upon one of the sons of the deceased sachem, own or collateral, upon a grandson, through one of his sons, or upon a brother, own or collateral. But if in the female line it would fall upon a brother or nephew, own or collateral, as elsewhere explained.

The sachem had no title whatever to the lands, and therefore none to transmit to any one. He was thought to be the proprietor because he held an office which was perpetually maintained, and because there was a body of lands perpetually belonging to a gens over which he was a sachem. The misconception of this office and of its tenure has been the fruitful source of unnumbered errors in our aboriginal histories. The lineage of Herrera, and the communities of Clavigero were evidently organizations, and the same organization. They found in this body of kindred, without knowing the fact, the unit of their social system—a gens, as we must suppose.

Indian chiefs are described as lords by Spanish writers, and invested with rights over lands and over persons they never possessed. It is a misconception to style an Indian chief a lord in the European sense, because it implies a condition of society that did not exist. A lord holds a rank and a title by hereditary right, secured to him by special legislation in derogation of the rights of the people as a whole. To this rank and title, since the overthrow of feudalism, no duties are attached which may be claimed by the king or the kingdom as a matter of right. On the contrary, an Indian chief holds an office, not by hereditary right, but by election from a constituency, which retained the right to depose him for cause. The office carried with it the obligation to perform certain duties for the benefit of the constituency. He had no authority over the persons or property or lands of the members of the gens. It is thus seen that no analogy exists between a lord and his title, and an Indian chief and his office. One belongs to political society, and represents an aggression of the few upon the many; while the other belongs to gentile society and is founded upon the common interests of the members of the gens. Unequal privileges find no place in the gens, phratry or tribe.

Further traces of the existence of Aztec gentes will appear. A prima facie case of the existence of gentes among them is at least made out. There was also an antecedent probability to this effect, from the presence of the two upper members of the organic series, the tribe, and the confederacy, and from the general prevalence of the organization among other tribes. A very little close investigation by the early Spanish writers would have placed the question beyond a doubt, and, as a consequence, have given a very different complexion to Aztec history.

The usages regulating the inheritance of property among the Aztecs have come down to us in a confused and contradictory condition. They are not material in this discussion, except as they reveal the existence of bodies of consanguinei, and the inheritance by children from their fathers. If the latter were the fact it would show that descent was in the male line, and also an extraordinary advance in a knowledge of property. It is not probable that children enjoyed an exclusive inheritance, or that any Aztec owned a foot of land which he could call his own, with power to sell and convey to whomsoever he pleased.

II. The Existence and Functions of the Council of Chiefs.

The existence of such a council among the Aztecs might have been predicted from the necessary constitution of Indian society. Theoretically, it would have been composed of that class of chiefs, distinguished as sachems, who represented bodies of kindred through an office perpetually maintained. Here again, as elsewhere, a necessity is seen for gentes, whose principal chiefs would represent the people in their ultimate social subdivisions as among the Northern tribes. Aztec gentes are fairly necessary to explain the existence of Aztec chiefs. Of the presence of an Aztec council there is no doubt whatever; but of the number of its members and of its functions we are left in almost total ignorance. Brasseur de Bourbourg remarks generally that “nearly all the towns or tribes are divided into four clans or quarters whose chiefs constitute the great council.” Whether he intended to limit the number to one chief from each quarter is not clear; but elsewhere he limits the Aztec council to four chiefs. Diego Duran, who wrote his work in 1579-1581, and thus preceded both Acosta and Tezozomoc, remarks as follows: “First we must know, that in Mexico after having elected a king they elected four lords of the brothers or near relations of this king to whom they gave the titles of princes, and from whom they had to choose the king. [To the offices he gives the names of Tlacachcalcatl, Tlacatecal, Ezuauacatl, and Fillancalque].... These four lords and titles after being elected princes, they made them the royal council, like the presidents and judges of the supreme council, without whose opinion nothing could be done.” Acosta, after naming the same offices, and calling the persons who held them “electors,” remarks that “all these four dignities were of the great council, without whose advice the king might not do anything of importance.” And Herrera, after placing these offices in four grades, proceeds: “These four sorts of noblemen were of the supreme council, without whose advice the king was to do nothing of moment, and no king could be chosen but what was of one of these four orders.” The use of the term king to describe a principal war-chief and of princes to describe Indian chiefs cannot create a state or a political society where none existed; but as misnomers they stilt up and disfigure our aboriginal history and for that reason ought to be discarded. When the Huexotzincos sent delegates to Mexico proposing an alliance against the Tlascalans, Montezuma addressed them, according to Tezozomoc, as follows: “Brothers and sons, you are welcome, rest yourselves awhile, for although I am king indeed I alone cannot satisfy you, but only together with all the chiefs of the sacred Mexican senate.” The above accounts recognize the existence of a supreme council, with authority over the action of the principal war-chief, which is the material point. It tends to show that the Aztecs guarded themselves against an irresponsible despot, by subjecting his action to a council of chiefs, and by making him elective and deposable. If the limited and incomplete statements of these authors intended to restrict this council to four members, which Duran seems to imply, the limitation is improbable. As such the council would represent, not the Aztec tribe, but the small body of kinsmen from whom the military commander was to be chosen. This is not the theory of a council of chiefs. Each chief represents a constituency, and the chiefs together represent the tribe. A selection from their number is sometimes made to form a general council; but it is through an organic provision which fixes the number, and provides for their perpetual maintenance. The Tezcucan council is said to have consisted of fourteen members, while the council at Tlascala was a numerous body. Such a council among the Aztecs is required by the structure and principles of Indian society, and therefore would be expected to exist. In this council may be recognized the lost element in Aztec history. A knowledge of its functions is essential to a comprehension of Aztec society.

In the current histories this council is treated as an advisory board of Montezuma’s, as a council of ministers of his own creation; thus Clavigero: “In the history of the conquest we shall find Montezuma in frequent deliberation with his council on the pretensions of the Spaniards. We do not know the number of each council, nor do historians furnish us with the lights necessary to illustrate such a subject.” It was one of the first questions requiring investigation, and the fact that the early writers failed to ascertain its composition and functions is proof conclusive of the superficial character of their work. We know, however, that the council of chiefs is an institution which came in with the gentes, which represents electing constituencies, and which from time immemorial had a vocation as well as original governing powers. We find a Tezcucan and Tlacopan council, a Tlascalan, a Cholulan and a Michoacan council, each composed of chiefs. The evidence establishes the existence of an Aztec council of chiefs; but so far as it is limited to four members, all of the same lineage, it is presented in an improbable form. Every tribe in Mexico and Central America, beyond a reasonable doubt, had its council of chiefs. It was the governing body of the tribe, and a constant phenomenon in all parts of aboriginal America. The council of chiefs is the oldest institution of government of mankind. It can show an unbroken succession on the several continents from the

Upper Status of savagery through the three sub-periods of barbarism to the commencement of civilization, when, having been changed into a preconsidering council with the rise of the assembly of the people, it gave birth to the modern legislature in two bodies.

It does not appear that there was a general council of the Aztec confederacy, composed of the principal chiefs of the three tribes, as distinguished from the separate councils of each. A complete elucidation of this subject is required before it can be known whether the Aztec organization was simply a league, offensive and defensive, and as such under the primary control of the Aztec tribe, or a confederacy in which the parts were integrated in a symmetrical whole. This problem must await future solution.

III. The Tenure and Functions of the Office of Principal War-chief.

The name of the office held by Montezuma, according to the best accessible information, was simply Teuctli, which signifies a war-chief. As a member of the council of chiefs he was sometimes called Tlatoani, which signifies speaker. This office of a general military commander was the highest known to the Aztecs. It was the same office and held by the same tenure as that of principal war-chief in the Iroquois confederacy. It made the person, ex officio, a member of the council of chiefs, as may be inferred from the fact that in some of the tribes the principal war-chief had precedence in the council both in debate and in pronouncing his opinion. None of the Spanish writers apply this title to Montezuma or his successors. It was superseded by the inappropriate title of king. Ixtlilxochitl, who was of mixed Tezcucan and Spanish descent, describes the head war-chiefs of Mexico, Tezcuco and Tlacopan, by the simple title of war-chief, with another to indicate the tribe. After speaking of the division of powers between the three chiefs when the confederacy was formed, and of the assembling of the chiefs of the three tribes on that occasion, he proceeds: “The king of Tezcuco was saluted by the title of Aculhua Teuctli, also by that of Chichimecatl Teuctli which his ancestors had worn, and which was the mark of the empire; Itzcoatzin, his uncle, received the title of Culhua Teuctli, because he reigned over the Toltecs-Culhuas; and Totoquihuatzin that of Tecpanuatl Teuctli, which had been the title of Azcaputzalco. Since that time their successors have received the same title." Izcoatzin (Itzcoatl), here mentioned, was war-chief of the Aztecs when the confederacy was formed. As the title was that of war-chief, then held by many other persons, the compliment consisted in connecting with it a tribal designation. In Indian speech the office held by Montezuma was equivalent to head war-chief, and in English to general.

Clavigero recognizes this office in several Nahuatlac tribes, but never applies it to the Aztec war-chief. “The highest rank of nobility in Tlascala, in Huexotzinco and in Cholula was that of Teuctli. To obtain this rank it was necessary to be of noble birth, to have given proofs in several battles of the utmost courage, to have arrived at a certain age, and to command great riches for the enormous expenses which were necessary to be supported by the possessor of such a dignity.” After Montezuma had been magnified into an absolute potentate, with civil as well as military functions, the nature and powers of the office he held were left in the background—in fact uninvestigated. As their general military commander he possessed the means of winning the popular favor, and of commanding the popular respect. It was a dangerous but necessary office to the tribe and to the confederacy. Throughout human experience, from the Lower Status of barbarism to the present time, it has ever been a dangerous office. Constitutions and laws furnish the present security of civilized nations, so far as they have any. A body of usages and customs grew up, in all probability, among the advanced Indian tribes and among the tribes of the valley of Mexico, regulating the powers and prescribing the duties of this office. There are general reasons warranting the supposition that the Aztec council of chiefs was supreme, not only in civil affairs, but over military affairs, the person and direction of the war-chief included. The Aztec polity under increased numbers and material advancement, had undoubtedly grown complex, and for that reason a knowledge of it would have been the more instructive. Could the exact particulars of their governmental organization be ascertained they would be sufficiently remarkable without embellishment.

The Spanish writers concur generally in the statement that the office held by Montezuma was elective, with the choice confined to a particular family. The office was found to pass from brother to brother, or from uncle to nephew. They were unable, however, to explain why it did not in some cases pass from father to son. Since the mode of succession was unusual to the Spaniards there was less possibility of a mistake with regard to the principal fact. Moreover, two successions occurred under the immediate notice of the conquerors. Montezuma was succeeded by Cuitlahua. In this case the office passed from brother to brother, although we cannot know whether they were own or collateral brothers without a knowledge of their system of consanguinity. Upon the death of the latter Guatemozin was elected to succeed him. Here the office passed from uncle to nephew, but we do not know whether he was an own or a collateral nephew. (See Part Third, ch. iii.) In previous cases the office had passed from brother to brother and also from uncle to nephew. An elective office implies a constituency; but who were the constituents in this case? To meet this question the four chiefs mentioned by Duran (supra] are introduced as electors, to whom one elector from Tezcuco and one from Tlacopan are added, making six, who are then invested with power to choose from a particular family the principal war-chief. This is not the theory of an elective Indian office, and it may be dismissed as improbable. Sahagun indicates a much larger constituency. “When the king or lord died,” he remarks, “all the senators called Tecutlatoques, and the old men of the tribe called Achcacauhiti, and also the captains and old warriors called Yautequioaques, and other prominent captains in warlike matters, and also the priests called Tlenamacaques, or Papasaques—all these assembled in the royal houses. Then they deliberated upon and determined who had to be lord, and chose one of the most noble of the lineage of the past lords, who should be a valiant man, experienced in warlike matters, daring and brave.... When they agreed upon one they at once named him as lord, but this election was not made by ballot or votes, but all together conferring at last agreed upon the man. The lord once elected they also elected four others which were like senators, and had to be always with the lord, and be informed of all the business of the kingdom.” This scheme of election by a large assembly, while it shows the popular element in the government which undoubtedly existed, is without the method of Indian institutions. Before the tenure of this office and the mode of election can be made intelligible, it is necessary to find whether or not they were organized in gentes, whether descent was in the female line or the male, and to know something of their system of consanguinity. If they had the system found in many other tribes of the Ganowánian family, which is probable, a man would call his brother’s son his son, and his sister’s son his nephew; he would call his father’s brother his father, and his mother’s brother his uncle; the children of his father’s brother his brothers and sisters, and the children of his mother’s brother his cousins, and so on. If organized into gentes with descent in the female line, a man would have brothers, uncles and nephews, collateral grandfathers and grandsons within his own gens; but neither own father, own son, or lineal grandson. His own sons and his brother’s sons would belong to other gentes. It cannot as yet be affirmed that the Aztecs were organized in gentes; but the succession to the office of principal war-chief is of itself strong proof of the fact, because it would explain this succession completely. Then with descent in the female line the office would be hereditary in a particular gens, but elective among its members. In that case the office would pass, by election within the gens, from brother to brother, or from uncle to nephew, precisely as it did among the Aztecs, and never from father to son. Among the Iroquois at that same time the offices of sachem and of principal war-chief were passing from brother to brother or from uncle to nephew, as the choice might happen to fall, and never to the son. It was the gens, with descent in the female line, which gave this mode of succession, and which could have been secured in no other conceivable way. It is difficult to resist the conclusion, from these facts alone, that the Aztecs were organized in gentes, and that in respect to this office at least descent was still in the female line.

It may therefore be suggested, as a probable explanation, that the office held by Montezuma was hereditary in a gens (the eagle was the blazon or totem on the house occupied by Montezuma), by the members of which the choice was made from among their number; that their nomination was then submitted separately to the four lineages or divisions of the Aztecs (conjectured to be phratries), for acceptance or rejection; and also to the Tezcucans and Tlacopans, who were directly interested in the selection of the general commander. When they had severally considered and confirmed the nomination each division appointed a person to signify their concurrence; whence the six miscalled electors. It is not unlikely that the four high chiefs of the Aztecs, mentioned as electors by a number of authors, were in fact the war-chiefs of the four divisions of the Aztecs, like the four war-chiefs of the four lineages of the Tlascalans. The function of these persons was not to elect, but to ascertain by a conference with each other whether the choice made by the gens had been concurred in, and if so to announce the result. The foregoing is submitted as a conjectural explanation, upon the fragments of evidence remaining, of the mode of succession to the Aztec office of principal war-chief. It is seen to harmonize with Indian usages, and with the theory of the office of an elective Indian chief.

The right to depose from office follows as a necessary consequence of the right to elect, where the term was for life. It is thus turned into an office during good behavior. In these two[Pg 211] principles of electing and deposing, universally established in the social system of the American aborigines, sufficient evidence is furnished that the sovereign power remained practically in the hands of the people. This power to depose, though seldom exercised, was vital in the gentile organization. Montezuma was no exception to the rule. It required time to reach this result from the peculiar circumstances of the case, for a good reason was necessary. When Montezuma allowed himself, through intimidation, to be conducted from his place of residence to the quarters of Cortes where he was placed under confinement, the Aztecs were paralyzed for a time for the want of a military commander. The Spaniards had possession both of the man and of his office. They waited some weeks, hoping the Spaniards would retire; but when they found the latter intended to remain they met the necessity, as there are sufficient reasons for believing, by deposing Montezuma for want of resolution, and elected his brother to fill his place. Immediately thereafter they assaulted the Spanish quarters with great fury, and finally succeeded in driving them from their pueblo. This conclusion respecting the deposition of Montezuma is fully warranted by Herrera’s statement of the facts. After the assault commenced, Cortes, observing the Aztecs obeying a new commander, at once suspected the truth of the matter, and “sent Marina to ask Montezuma whether he thought they had put the government into his hands,” i. e., the hands of the new commander. Montezuma is said to have replied “that they would not presume to choose a king in Mexico whilst he was living.” He then went upon the roof of the house and addressed his countrymen, saying among other things, “that he had been informed they had chosen another king because he was confined and loved the Spaniards;” to which he received the following ungracious reply from an Aztec warrior: “Hold your peace, you effeminate scoundrel, born to weave and spin; these dogs keep you a prisoner, you are a coward.” Then they discharged arrows upon him and stoned him, from the effects of which and from deep humiliation he shortly afterwards died. The war-chief in the command of the Aztecs in this assault was Cuitlahua, the brother of Montezuma and his successor.

Respecting the functions of this office very little satisfactory information can be derived from the Spanish writers. There is no reason for supposing that Montezuma possessed any power over the civil affairs of the Aztecs. Moreover, every presumption is against it. In military affairs when in the field he had the powers of a general; but military movements were probably decided upon by the council. It is an interesting fact to be noticed that the functions of a priest were attached to the office of principal war-chief, and, as it is claimed, those of a judge. The early appearance of these functions in the natural growth of the military office will be referred to again in connection with that of basileus. Although the government was of two powers it is probable that the council was supreme, in case of a conflict of authority, over civil and military affairs. It should be remembered that the council of chiefs was the oldest in time, and possessed a solid basis of power in the needs of society and in the representative character of the office of chief.

The tenure of the office of principal war-chief and the presence of a council with power to depose from office, tend to show that the institutions of the Aztecs were essentially democratic. The elective principle with respect to war-chief, and which we must suppose existed with respect to sachem and chief, and the presence of a council of chiefs, determine the material fact.  It is very important to know whether the institutions of a people are essentially democratic, or essentially monarchical, when we seek to understand them. Institutions of the former kind are separated nearly as widely from those of the latter, as democracy is from monarchy. Without ascertaining the unit of their social system, if organized in gentes as they probably were, and without gaining a knowledge of the system that did exist, the Spanish writers boldly invented for the Aztecs an absolute monarchy with high feudal characteristics, and have succeeded in placing it in history. This misconception has stood, through American indolence, quite as long as it deserves to stand. The Aztec organization presented itself plainly to the Spaniards as a league or confederacy of tribes. Nothing but the grossest perversion of obvious facts could have enabled the Spanish writers to fabricate the Aztec monarchy out of a democratic organization.

The Aztec organization presented itself plainly to the Spaniards as a league or confederacy of tribes. Nothing but the grossest perversion of obvious facts could have enabled the Spanish writers to fabricate the Aztec monarchy out of a democratic organization.
— Orly

Theoretically, the Aztecs, Tezcucans and Tlacopans should severally have had a head-sachem to represent the tribe in civil affairs when the council of chiefs was not in session, and to take the initiative in preparing its work. There are traces of such an officer among the Aztecs in the Ziahuacatl, who is sometimes called the second chief, as the war-chief is called the first. But the accessible information respecting this office is too limited to warrant a discussion of the subject.

It has been shown among the Iroquois that the warriors could appear before the council of chiefs and express their views upon public questions; and that the women could do the same through orators of their own selection. This popular participation in the government led in time to the popular assembly, with power to adopt or reject public measures submitted to them by the council. Among the Village Indians there is no evidence, so far as the author is aware, that there was an assembly of the people to consider public questions with power to act upon them. The four lineages probably met for special objects, but this was very different from a general assembly for public objects. From the democratic character of their institutions and their advanced condition the Aztecs were drawing near the time when the assembly of the people might be expected to appear.

The growth of the idea of government among the American aborigines, as elsewhere remarked, commenced with the gens and ended with the confederacy. Their organizations were social and not political. Until the idea of property had advanced very far beyond the point they had attained, the substitution of political for gentile society was impossible. There is not a fact to show that any portion of the aborigines, at least in North America, had reached any conception of the second great plan of government founded upon territory and upon property. The spirit of the government and the condition of the people harmonize with the institutions under which they live. When the military spirit predominates, as it did among the Aztecs, a military democracy rises naturally under gentile institutions. Such a government neither supplants the free spirit of the gentes, nor weakens the principles of democracy, but accords with them harmoniously.


Lewis Henry Morgan (November 21, 1818 – December 17, 1881) was a pioneering American anthropologist and social theorist who worked as a railroad lawyer. He is best known for his work on kinship and social structure, his theories of social evolution, and his ethnography of the Iroquois. Interested in what holds societies together, he proposed the concept that the earliest human domestic institution was the matrilineal clan, not the patriarchal family.

Also interested in what leads to social change, he was a contemporary of the European social theorists Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were influenced by reading his work on social structure and material culture, the influence of technology on progress. Morgan is the only American social theorist to be cited by such diverse scholars as Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud. Elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Morgan served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879.
— Orly

Adapted from:  Lewis Morgan, LL.D. , Ancient Society or Researches in the LInes of Human Progress from Savagery, through Barbarism to Civilization


Mythology: Totem and Taboo

Iroquois: The Iroquois Confederacy