When Europeans first came to America, they discovered that their providentially discovered "New World" was already inhabited by millions of native peoples they casually labeled the "savages." In time, Europeans would decimate this population, killing between 95-99% of the 12 million plus inhabitants of the Northern Continent, and as many in the south. Before this genocide was complete, however, the culture of the natives would significantly influence the philosophy and politics of the nations that conquered them. The native societies, with their egalitarian social structures, natural absence of disease, communal sharing of resources, and their lifestyles in which work was easily balanced with art and play, seemed like something Europeans had lost when Adam and Eve left Eden. "Native societies, especially in America, reminded Europeans of imagined golden worlds known to them only in folk history. . . Created of European wish-fulfillment, the image of the 'Noble Savage' was created from the cloth of this imagery, [and] fashioned by European philosophers..." (Grinde & Johansen) Europeans were astonished to find that there existed societies in which people lived in egalitarian liberty without law or aristocracy, and this possibility inspired an entire generation of debate on the rule of natural law and the genesis of society. For the first time since the Rome and the church had civilized (and tyrannized) the people of Europe, there was a call to reexamine the ancient roots of European culture to discover the "barbarian" Celts and Goths whose own egalitarian cultures has surely been effaced. "We might suggest that the traditional folk democracy of parts of Europe became viable again when merged with the actual knowledge that there were functioning democratic/communalistic societies in the world" (Grinde & Johansen) This philosophical shift is inseparable from the historical events and people that triggered it; the history is terribly ironic which records that native culture inspired the natural law movement in Europe which resulted eventually in the widespread adoption of originally native American "democratic and environmentalist tendencies" (Grinde & Johansen) and vast improvements in the liberties of Europeans -- for Europeans, in turn, erased the liberties, democratic institutions, and even the environments of their American hosts.
The ideal -- one might say stereotype-- of the Noble Savage cut both ways, at once creating awareness of a new nobility among Europeans and labeling the natives as "savages" who only incidentally happened to be noble or free. Distance in particular had a habit of "distort[ing] the reality of the image... [so that] Rousseau or Locke seems utterly more fantastical than... Franklin, Jefferson, and other influential founders of the United States, who did diplomatic business with American native people in the course of their daily lives." (Grinde & Johansen) There was a great degree to which the ideal was actually true. However, it was also an oversimplification and in some ways inaccurate. In some cases the ideal exaggerated the degree to which natives enjoyed "life, liberty and happiness" (Grinde & Johansen) and in so doing ignored the fact that most tribes had sophisticated traditions and social expectations which guided their lives. Additionally, the simplification of the vast peoples of America into a single nearly-metaphorical "savage" culture, combining "dozens of peoples and belief systems into one generic whole." (Grinde & Johansen) Nonetheless, on the whole the idea of the noble savage was inherently rooted in the real experience of Europeans in exploring the Americas and on the real cultures of the natives.
In exploring the history of the concept of the "Noble Savage," one must look at the introduction of the idea of the "savage" to Europe, its progression through the works of Rousseau and his European contemporaries, the influence of "savage" culture on Franklin and Jefferson, and the way in which the truth of the noble "savage" culture inspired many of the events and developments of the American Revolution and Constitution (which in turn is responsible for the development of the French and Haitian revolutions).
The Introduction of the Native "Noble Savage" to Europe
In exploring the development of the Noble Savage stories, one finds the earliest manifestations in Thomas More's seminal word-creating work Utopia. This work came fast on the heals of Columbus' discovery of the New World, and the "new world" of the Utopian society was inspired by native American culture. More was familiar with the "Vespucci forgeries" (Grinde & Johansen), which were a false account of Amerigo Vespucci's journey which exalted the liberties and civilization of the native Americans. Additionally, More reported having interviewed sailors who had been intimate with American natives. Utopia was "the first explicit literary example, rooted in the New World, of a political alternative to Europe's tyrannies." (Burtun, in Grinde & Johansen)
The idea of the noble savage was reinforced, rather than discouraged, the more Europeans came to be familiar with native American culture. In the early years of exploration, Indian captives were frequently brought over to Europe to be exhibited or "educated," neither of which was particularly beneficial for the poor fellow involved. However, these exchanges -- if such a term can be applied to slavery-- were very beneficial to Europeans in terms of encouraging them to cast a critical eye on their own culture. Somewhat ironically, that criticism did not generally tend to extend to the assumed cultural perogative which justified the forced visitation of their native guest. Generally speaking, it appears that visiting native Americans were used by writers as mouth-pieces for cultural critique. Many of these critiques were somewhat legitimate extrapolations of the how native cultures reflected poorly on European culture, even if the supposed statements would have been unlikely to come from the generally polite and non-English-speaking captives. For example, the Saint James Chronicle claimed to have interviewed a Cherokee captive who was recorded as saying that the English were a noble and brave people, "though undoubtedly inferior to the Cherokee Nation, and tinctured with many follies that we are entirely free from...[such as having] the path to honors... lined with gold. . . . How different in this respect are they from the Americans, among whom merit is the only passage to honors." (Grinde & Johansen)
At first, the influence of the "savages" appears to have been relatively limited to philosophical or satirical fiction or fictionalized journalism. These genres, while influential, tend not to be in the front wave of revolutions. When the concept was embodied into philosophy, however, and particularly into political philosophy, it gained a new power. The term "Noble Savage," as it applies to a philosophical archetype, appears to have been coined by Jean Jacques Rousseau and because of his rather extreme and controversial romanticism it has often been used rather disparagingly to describe any attempt to uphold native cultures as worthy of emulation. However, the basic theory of looking at the noble savage was used not only by Rousseau but by most of his contemporaries who -- upon finding that there were in America highly functional societies with none of the stratification, inequality and repression that was common in Europe-- developed an interest in the possible arrangements and theories of society and government. It became standard for European philosophers from Rousseau to Locke to Hobbes to base their critiques of and theories for society on speculations as to how primitive government had been generated. For liberals like Rousseau and Locke, the argument for a democratic, rights-based society draws its justification from the idea that primitive and ideal government is of this form -- and the justification for that argument, historically, comes not so much from logic as from that generation's experiences with (or least awareness of) native cultures such as those in the Americas. It has frequently been suggested that the American Revolution drew from European philosophical well-springs, but one would be amiss not to acknowledge the degree to which those European philosophies were educated by the native American experience.
Of Continental Philosophers, and Rousseau's "Noble Savage."
John Locke once wrote that "In the beginning, all the world was America." (quoted in Johansen) His arguments for the "state of nature" were obvious appeals to the natural state of Northern American natives. That in the original state of nature man would be free from all state coercion and interact with one another in a democratic fashion has less in common with ancient Greek culture (in which democracy was limited to a single city that was still corrupted by state control so severe that Socrates was killed there) and more in common with the "united nations" of the Iroquois. "The state of nature and of natural equality to which men might appeal in rebellion against tyranny was set not in the remote dawn of history, but beyond the Atlantic sunset... [Both] Hobbes and Locke... show a familiarity with the social structure of the American Indians which they used to good purpose.... [they were] in search of a more valid ordering of society. . . . The American Indian was believed to have found many of the…