Happy Birthday to the Northwest Ordinance

July 13 marks the 220th anniversary of one of the most important pieces of legislation enacted by the Continental Congress. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 would set the precedent for the expansion of the union from its original 13 colonies to 50 states and enumerate rights to citizens in those states. Because of its importance, school children are taught about this act, yet few today know what it did or its significance.

Because of this act, the residents of Michigan are neither inferior nor superior to those of any other state. Residents of the last 37 states share the same rights as those in the original 13 who fought and died for the truths stated in the Declaration of Independence. This is where the greatness of the Northwest Ordinance lies — the United States did not expand west by conquering and subjugating, but rather by welcoming new states to share in the republican form of government.

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The United States’ first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, is often looked on as inadequate and a failure. For this reason, it is easy to overlook the significant accomplishments of the American government under the Articles. One of these accomplishments and revolutionary moves was the Northwest Ordinance, which established a far-reaching policy for the settlement and incorporation of western lands.

Passed unanimously, this act established the precedent by which the United States would expand westward — by admission of new states — rather than by expanding existing ones or by colonization. The act specifically concerned land east of the Mississippi in modern day Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. This vision for expansion was truly revolutionary. The land 20 years earlier belonged to foreign powers and was primarily used by American Indians.

The land was acquired by Great Britain from France following the 1763 Treaty of Paris. The American Revolution, however, changed everything. The region was claimed by the United States following the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the war. The new nation wanted to expand beyond the Appalachian Mountains: Once colonial subjects, newly free citizens now wanted to be frontiersmen. But this desire to expand had its roadblocks. There was a lingering British presence later solved by the War of 1812, and many states already had overlapping and conflicting claims to parts of the region. For instance, by moving their western boundaries across the map, Massachusetts and Connecticut tried to lay claim to the southern and central areas of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

However, this form of expansion was not to be. The founders thought it wise to expand by adding new states, not by adding new territory to old states. Through a series of compromises, the states gave up any land they claimed west of the Appalachians to the Federal government. Thomas Jefferson in 1784 proposed creating 17 roughly rectangular states from the territory, and even suggested names for them, including Washington, Michigania and Illinoia. Although the proposal was not adopted, it established the example that would become the basis for the Northwest Ordinance three years later.

Before there was a Northwest Territory, its political future had already been prescribed in the Public Lands Resolution of October 1780. Congress resolved that 1) the lands ceded to the United States "shall be settled and formed into distinct… States, which shall become members of the federal union, and shall have the same rights of sovereignty, freedom and independence as the other states;" and 2) they shall be "republican states." Thus, the United States, formerly colonies that broke away from an empire on the basis of principles that condemn colonialism as unjust, found in those principles the outlines of an unprecedented ordering of the relationships of empire. Its "colonies" were to be self-governing states.

The Northwest Ordinance was revolutionary in a number of ways. As previously mentioned, it abolished state claims to the land; the lands were to be administered by the central government, albeit temporarily, rather than underneath the jurisdiction of particular states. The most significant intended purpose of the legislation was its mandate for the creation of three to five new states from the region. The actual legal mechanism of the admission of new states was established in the Enabling Act of 1802. The five new states formed were Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848).

For many years, much of the territory was frontier occupied by settlers with no state government. As an organic act, the Northwest Ordinance created a civil government in the territory under the direct jurisdiction of the Congress. Thus the Northwest Ordinance was the model for all subsequent acts creating organized territories during the westward expansion of the United States. The Ordinance laid out a three-stage program to govern districts within the territory and prepare them for admission to the Union. First, the president appointed a governor, a secretary and three judges to govern a particular district. In the second stage, once a district reached a population of 5,000 free white adult males, it could elect a legislature and a nonvoting member to the House of Representatives. The third stage occurred when a district reached a population of 60,000 free residents (both male and female). The district could then draft a constitution and, after obtaining congressional approval, the district became a state. When this happened, the district, according to the Northwest Ordinance, entered the Union "on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatsoever."

Indeed, the ordinance has the character of a sacred pledge. It gives rights, but imposes obligations by voluntary but inviolable agreement: "It is hereby ordained and declared by the authority aforesaid, that the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact between the original States and the people and States in the said territory and forever remain unalterable…"

The Northwest Ordinance also established basic civil rights for the inhabitants of the territory, banning slavery and setting benchmarks for the Bill of Rights four years before the Constitution was ratified. While the nation was to ravage itself 70 years later over the issue of slavery, the Union established early in its formation that this land was to be free land. This was at a time when northeastern states such as New York and New Jersey still permitted slavery. The Northwest Ordinance also guaranteed that settlers living in the Northwest Territory would receive the same rights enjoyed by citizens living in the original 13 states. Many of the concepts and guarantees of the Ordinance of 1787 were incorporated in the U.S. Constitution. In the Northwest Territory, various legal and property rights were enshrined, religious tolerance was proclaimed, and "Religion, morality, and knowledge" were pronounced as "necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind." Because of this, "schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." The right of habeas corpus was written into the charter, as was freedom of religious worship and bans on excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishment. Trial by jury and a ban on ex post facto laws also were granted.

In 1787, the country east of the Appalachians, understanding the mentality of colonial people, declared it would treat what it was careful not to call its western colonies not as colonies at all, but in the long run as full partners in a single nation. In stark contrast to the expansive imperial powers of the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States established an orderly method for creating a coherent polity with new land. The Northwest Ordinance would, with minor adjustments, remain the guiding policy for the admission of all future states into the Union.

Recently we, a free and equal people, celebrated the independence of our nation. We, in Michigan, are free and equal with the rest of the Union precisely because of this ordinance. Because of the Northwest Ordinance, passed 220 years ago, we have a government of the people, for the people, and by the people, not a government for the people and over the people.


Benjamin D. Stafford is an economics major at Hillsdale College and a summer intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.

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