The Northwest Ordinance and American Ideals
After the Revolutionary War, Americans flooded the frontier beyond the Appalachian Mountains in search of land and greater opportunity. The path for settlement was rooted in republican ideals and resulted in one of the greatest successes of the government under the Articles of Confederation.
One of the most important developments in settling the West was the states ceding their western land claims to the nation. For example, in 1781, Virginia ceded its claims to the territory north of the Ohio River to Congress, and other states quickly followed.
Thomas Jefferson drafted the Ordinance of 1784, which was considered and adopted by the Congress. The land ordinance established the principles of making new territories entering into the Union equal to the original thirteen states and guaranteeing the new states a republican form of government.
Jefferson included a clause that would have forever banned slavery in the western territories, but it narrowly lost by a single vote. Reflecting on its failure, Jefferson wrote a few years later: “The voice of a single individual would have prevented this abominable crime; heaven will not always be silent; the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail.”
The following year, Congress adopted the Land Ordinance of 1785 which specified how the land in the Northwest Territory would be disposed of and divided as a model of orderly western settlement. The ordinance stated that the land was to be surveyed and then divided into townships and farms to shape civil society and individual land ownership. Land purchases were to be paid to the national government to provide revenue, especially to help retire the national debt. Communities would establish public schools to educate the citizens in knowledge and the virtues of republican citizenship.
In July 1787, while delegates were meeting at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, representatives of several land companies lobbied the Congress in New York for land grants to settle the Northwest Territory. New England minister Manassah Cutler of the Ohio Company and New York speculator William Duer of the Scioto Company paid for large tracts of land of millions of acres.
On July 13, Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance to establish government along republican principles for the territory. The document authorized the territory to be carved into three to five states. It provided a path to statehood and reaffirmed the idea that the new states would enter the Union equally with the other states.
The process for statehood started with Congress appointing a governor and council to govern a territory until the population for the territory reached 5,000. The people could then elect a representative assembly through free and frequent elections. When the population included 60,000 settlers, the territory could adopt a constitution and apply to Congress for statehood.
The Northwest Ordinance was rooted in republican government and natural rights as the foundation for just laws. “For extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments,” it declared.
Another republican measure included in the ordinance was the banning of primogeniture. The document thus prevented an aristocracy of land passed through the generations of first-born sons. Instead, it supported the principle of equality.
The ordinance specifically protected several individual liberties. Religious liberty was once again explicitly protected as an essential right. All citizens were protected from civil penalties for their “mode of worship or religious sentiments.”
The rights of the accused were firmly protected. They included a right to habeas corpus, trial by jury, bail, no cruel and unusual punishments, and due process of law. The governments were bound to protect property rights and the right to contract.
Perhaps most significantly, Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the territory. While slavery was being abolished outright or gradually in most northern states at the time, the ordinance prevented slavery from spreading in three to five new states in the Northwest. It read, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” It did, however, provide for a fugitive slave clause for the recovery of escaped slaves.
Contrarily, the Southwest Ordinance of 1790 protected the expansion of slavery. “Provided always that no regulations made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate Slaves.” The roots of the sectional divide over the western expansion of slavery were laid early in the new nation.
The Northwest Ordinance promoted education and religion as the basis of good and virtuous citizenship, which was in turn the foundation of republican self-government as the Ordinance held that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
The ordinance promised that justice, liberality, and good faith would always be practiced with the Indians in the territory. It also promised not to take their property without consent and not to disturb them. These good intentions were rarely practiced, and several battles would be fought over the ensuing decade for control of the area.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was a seminal founding document. The republican and natural rights principles of the American founding shaped the ordinance and the creation of new states in that territory. That republican vision resulted in the dynamic growth of the continental American union and empire of liberty.
Tony Williams is a Senior Fellow at the Bill of Rights Institute and is the author of six books including Washington and Hamilton: The Alliance that Forged America with Stephen Knott. Williams is currently writing a book on the Declaration of Independence.
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