Guest Essayist: Tony Williams

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Ratified in 1781, the Articles of Confederation had significant problems. The Congress was unicameral, and the national government did not have an independent executive or judiciary. The states were sovereign, and the national government did not have the power to tax or regulate commerce. It was essentially just a league of friendship.

Yet, the national government under the Articles did achieve some notable successes. The nation made peace with the British in 1783 and secured its independence. Moreover, the Confederation Congress established policies for the settlement of land in the West and principles for the integration of new states into the national Union, weak though it was.

Several states had claims to western lands from royal land grants as British colonies and relinquished those claims. As a result, the Confederation Congress was able to formalize the process by which territory could become states once enough Americans populated the area.

Congress passed the 1784 Ordinance written by congressman Thomas Jefferson. It would have made ten states out of the Northwest Territory, and each territory was eligible for statehood when its population reached 200,000. More importantly, it laid down important principles for the addition of new states to the Union. First, the new states would be admitted as equals to the original thirteen states. Second, the residents of the new states were also guaranteed republican self-government. Significantly, Jefferson proposed to ban slavery in all western territories, but it failed by a single vote.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 authorized the survey of the Northwest Territory and the land was to be sold at a dollar an acre to encourage settlement and raise revenue for the national government.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was passed by the Confederation Congress while the Constitutional Convention was meeting. It authorized three to five states in the territory and set up a specific path to statehood in which 5,000 settlers could elect an assembly and 60,000 residents could adopt a constitution and apply for statehood.

The principles of state equality in the national Union and the guarantee of republican governments were prominent again. The purpose was “for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions, are erected.”

In addition, the Northwest Ordinance protected the rights of the accused including the right to a trial by jury. Freedom of religion was protected, and education to promote civic virtue was key to republican government. “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Slavery was banned in the territory as the framers of this document tried to restrict it to the South and put it on the road to ultimate extinction. Primogeniture was banned and equality in the distribution of property instituted to prevent an aristocracy from arising on American soil. The Northwest Ordinance was strongly bent toward fundamental liberties, republican government, and national Union.

The Constitution restated these principles yet again in Article IV, section 3 when it asserted that new states may be admitted into the Union and that Congress “shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States. In section 4, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion.” The Constitution added the principle of federalism to the relationship of the national government to the states.

Rapid westward expansion over the next century built a continental republic rooted in a national Union of equal republican states. However, the expansion was marred by the expansion of slavery and contention about the constitutional authority of Congress to regulate territories as in the Dred Scott (1857) case.

In his Farewell Address, President George Washington expressed the importance of national Union:

That you should cherish a cordial, habitual and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our Country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

President Abraham Lincoln concurred with Washington that the national Union and the republican principle were core ideas of the American Creed: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

Tony Williams is a Constituting America Fellow and a Senior Teaching Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute. He is the author of six books including the newly-published Hamilton: An American Biography.

 

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