Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath

In perhaps its most significant legislative action, the Congress of the Articles of Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance on July 13, 1787. This landmark law was an act of institutional strength during a period of marked institutional weakness, a reminder of a national will that had been battered by fears of disunion, and a source of constitutional principles that defined parts of the fundamental charter that would replace the Articles a year later.

The domain ceded by the British to the states under the Treaty of Paris of 1783 extended to the Mississippi River, well westward of the main area of settlement and even of the “backcountry” areas such as the Piedmont regions of Virginia and the Carolinas. The Confederation and its component states were land-rich and cash-poor. The answer would appear to be to open up this land for settlement by selling tracts to bona fide purchasers and to encourage immigration from Europeans. But matters were not that easy.

For some years before independence, there had been a gradual stream of westward migration past the Allegheny and Cumberland Mountains. Shocked into action by the ferocity of the Pontiac War that flared even as the war with the French in North America was winding down, the British sought to end this movement.  Accordingly, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763 in October of that year, which prohibited colonial governments from granting land titles to Whites beyond the sources of rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean. Nor could White squatters occupy this land. The objective was to pacify the Indians, secure the existing frontier of White settlement, reduce speculation in vast tracts of land, divert immigration to British Canada, and protect British commerce and importation of British goods by a population concentrated near the coast.

While the policy initially succeeded in damping western settlement, in the longer term it alienated the Americans and helped trigger the move to independence. Ironically, during the Revolutionary War, those who actually had moved to the western settlements often considered themselves aggrieved and politically marginalized by the colonial assemblies, provincial congresses, and early state legislatures that were controlled by the eastern counties. Westerners were more likely to sit out the war, flee to the off-limits lands, or even align with the British.

Over time, the policy increasingly was ignored. Subsequent treaties moved the line of settlement westward. Squatters, land speculators and local governments evaded that revision, too. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison describes the actions of George Washington and his partner William Crawford in obtaining deeds from the colonial government of Pennsylvania to a large tract of land that lay west of the Proclamation line. In a letter to Crawford, Washington expressed his conviction that the proclamation was temporary and bound to end in a few years. “Any person therefore who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good lands and in some measure marking … them for their own (in order to keep others from settling them) will never regain it…. The scheme [of marking the claim must be] snugly carried out by you under the pretense of hunting other game.” Washington’s secretive “scheme” was standard practice.

Washington was a comparatively minor participant. Speculators included a who’s who of colonial (and British) politicians and upper class merchants. While the British government vetoed some of the more flagrant schemes that involved many millions of acres, the practice continued under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787. With independence a reality, Americans need no longer be influenced by British imperial policy. The new governments could accede to the popular clamor to open up the western lands.

However, three issues needed to be resolved: the conflicting state claims to western land, by having the states cede the contested areas to the Confederation; the orderly disposition of public lands, by surveying, selling, and granting legal title; and the creation of a path to statehood for this unorganized wilderness. The Articles of Confederation addressed none of these. The first was accomplished by Congress in 1779 and 1780 through resolutions urging the states to turn over such disputed land claims to the Confederation as public land. Most did. Unlike other actions by Congress under the Articles that required assent by the state legislatures, these public lands would be administered directly by the Congress. During the later debate on the Constitution of 1787, James Madison and others used Congress’s control over the western lands as an example of the dangers of unchecked unenumerated powers. This was quite in contrast to their usual complaints about the Confederation’s weakness. To be fair to Madison, he admitted that he supported what Congress had done. Congress solved the second issue on May 20, 1785, when it legislated a system of surveying the new public lands, dividing them into townships, and selling the surveyed land by public auction. The third resulted in the Northwest Ordinance.

The catalyst for this last solution was the Ohio Company, one of the land speculation syndicates. General Rufus Putnam and various New England war veterans organized the company to purchase 1.5 million acres for $1 million in depreciated Continental currency with an actual value of about one-eighth of the face amount. Even with the potential to raise money for the Confederation’s empty coffers, Congress barely met its quorum when eight states met to consider the proposal. As a condition of the deal, the Ohio Company wanted the Northwest Ordinance in order to make their land sales more attractive to investors. Rufus King and Nathan Dane of Massachusetts drafted the Ordinance. All eight states represented approved the law, with all but one of the 18 delegates in favor. Ultimately, the Ohio Company was able to raise only half the amount promised and purchased 750,000 acres. However, the Ordinance applied throughout the unorganized territory north of the Ohio River.

The Ordinance did not spring spontaneously from the effort of King and Dane. Congress in 1780 had declared in its earlier resolution that the lands ceded to the Confederation would be administered directly by the Congress with the goal that they would be “settled and formed into distinct republican states, which shall become members of the Federal Union.” Four years later, Thomas Jefferson presented a proposal to Congress, which, with some amendments, was adopted as the Land Ordinance of 1784. It provided for division of the territory into ten eventual states, the establishment of a territorial government when the population reached 20,000, and statehood when the population reached the same as that of the smallest of the original thirteen.

The Ordinance had three important components. First, of course, the statute provided for the political organization of the territory. The whole territory was divided into three “districts.” A territorial assembly would be established for a portion of the territory as soon as that area had at least 5,000 male inhabitants. Congress would appoint a governor, and a territorial court would be established. All of these officials had to meet various property requirements consisting of freehold estates between 200 and 1,000 acres. Voting, too, required ownership of an estate of at least 50 acres. Once the population reached 60,000, the area could apply to Congress for admission to statehood on equal terms with the original states. Eventually, five states, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin emerged from the Northwest Territory. The process of colonization and decolonization established under the Ordinance became the model followed in its general terms through the admission of Alaska and Hawaii in 1959.

Another critical feature of the Ordinance was the inclusion of an embryonic bill of rights in the first and second articles. The first protected the free exercise of religion. The second was more expansive and singled out, among others, various natural rights, such as the protection against cruel and unusual punishments, against uncompensated takings, and against retroactive interference with vested contract rights. The enumeration of specific restrictions on government power was consistent with constitutional practice at the state level. It also bolstered the demand of critics of the original Constitution of 1787 that a bill of rights be included in that document.

As a final matter, the Ordinance addressed the controversial question of slavery. Article VI both prohibited slavery itself in the territory and required that a fugitive slave escaping from one of the original states be “conveyed to the person claiming his, or her labor, or service ….” While this compromise was not ideal for Southern slave states, their delegations acquiesced because the Ordinance did not cover the territory most consequential to them, which extended westward from Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. The compromise also established a geographic line for the exclusion of slavery, which approach was not challenged until the debate over the admission of Missouri to statehood in 1819-1820. The eventual Missouri Compromise retained that solution, although a different geographic line was drawn. The fugitive slave provision and its successors were generally enforced until the 1830s, when the issue began to vex American politics and pit various states against each other and the federal government.

Article III of the Ordinance declared, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” This affirmation reflected republican theory of the time. John Adams would write in 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.” George Washington made a similar point in his Farewell Address on September 19, 1796, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.” In that same speech, Washington tied religion and morality to human happiness and to popular and free government. Article III thus embodied a classic conception of the path to human fulfillment (“happiness”) and virtuous citizenship. Training in these necessary virtues must start early. Thus, schools were needed. Unlike for us and our modern sensibilities, there was no scruple that this would be an improper establishment of religion. The earlier Ordinance of 1785 had provided that in each surveyed township a certain area would be set aside to build schools. This article called for the spirit that would animate their physical structure.

The Confederation’s greatest achievement proved to be its last. The Northwest Ordinance had to be renewed when the Constitution of 1787 replaced the Confederation. The new Congress did so, with minor changes, in 1789, and President Washington signed the bill into law on August 7 of that year. On May 26, 1790, the Southwest Ordinance was approved to organize the territory south of the Ohio River. The terms of that statute were similar to its northern counterpart, except in the crucial matter of slavery. The Southwest Ordinance prohibited Congress from making any laws within the territory that would tend to the emancipation of slaves. This signaled Congress’s willingness to permit the “peculiar institution” to be extended into new states, if the settlers wished. Taken together with the Northwest Ordinance, the statutes set the pattern for compromise on the slavery issue that lasted until the 1850s. Intended to organize the “Old Southwest,” the Southwest Ordinance ultimately governed only Tennessee’s passage to statehood. The Northwest Ordinance affected a much larger area and lasted longer, ending with the admission of Wisconsin to the union in 1848.

An expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty, Professor Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow. Read more from Professor Knipprath at:

Click Here to have the NEWEST essay in this study emailed to your inbox every day!

Click Here to view the schedule of topics in our 90-Day Study on American History.

0 replies

Join the discussion! Post your comments below.

Your feedback and insights are welcome.
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *