Northwest Ordinance

Northwest Territory (1787)

The Northwest Ordinance (formally An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, and also known as The Ordinance of 1787) enacted July 13, 1787, was an organic act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States. It created the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, from lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, between British North America and the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south. The upper Mississippi River formed the territory's western boundary.

In the Treaty of Paris (1783), which formally ended the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain yielded this region to the United States. However, the Confederation Congress faced numerous problems gaining control of the land; these included: the unsanctioned movement of American settlers into the Ohio Valley, violent confrontations with the region's indigenous peoples, and an empty U.S. treasury.[1] The ordinance superseded the Land Ordinance of 1784 (which declared that states would one day be formed within the region) and the Land Ordinance of 1785 (which described how the Confederation Congress would sell the land to private citizens). Designed to serve as a blueprint for the development and settlement of the region, what the 1787 ordinance lacked was a strong central government to implement it. This need was addressed shortly thereafter, when the new federal government came into existence in 1789. The 1st United States Congress reaffirmed the 1787 ordinance, and, with slight modifications, renewed it through the Northwest Ordinance of 1789.[2]

Considered one of the most important legislative acts of the Confederation Congress,[3] it established the precedent by which the Federal government would be sovereign and expand westward with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. It also set legislative precedent with regard to American public domain lands.[4] The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the authority of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 within the applicable Northwest Territory as constitutional in Strader v. Graham,[5] but did not extend the Ordinance to cover the respective states once they were admitted to the Union.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the geographic divide between slave states and free states from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River (an extension of the Mason–Dixon line). It also helped set the stage for later political conflicts over slavery at the federal level in the 19th century until the Civil War.

Context and history

The territory was acquired by Great Britain from France following victory in the Seven Years' War and the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Great Britain took over the Ohio Country, as its eastern portion was known, but a few months later closed it to new European settlement by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The Crown tried to restrict settlement of the thirteen colonies between the Appalachians and the Atlantic, which raised colonial tensions among those who wanted to move west. With the colonials' victory in the American Revolutionary War and signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the United States claimed the territory, as well as the areas south of the Ohio. The territories were subject to overlapping and conflicting claims of the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia dating from their colonial past. The British were active in some of the border area until after the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812.

The region had long been desired for expansion by colonists. The states were encouraged to settle their claims by the US government's de facto opening of the area to settlement following the defeat of Great Britain. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson, a delegate from Virginia, proposed that the states should relinquish their particular claims to all the territory west of the Appalachians, and the area should be divided into new states of the Union. Jefferson's proposal to create a federal domain through state cessions of western lands was derived from earlier proposals dating back to 1776 and debates about the Articles of Confederation.[6] Jefferson proposed creating ten roughly rectangular states from the territory, and suggested names for the new states: Cherronesus, Sylvania, Assenisipia, Illinoia, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, Pelisipia, Washington, Michigania and Saratoga.[7] The Congress of the Confederation modified the proposal, passing it as the Land Ordinance of 1784. This ordinance established the example that would become the basis for the Northwest Ordinance three years later.

The 1784 ordinance was criticized by George Washington in 1785 and James Monroe in 1786. Monroe convinced Congress to reconsider the proposed state boundaries; a review committee recommended repealing that part of the ordinance. Other politicians questioned the 1784 ordinance's plan for organizing governments in new states, and worried that the new states' relatively small sizes would undermine the original states' power in Congress. Other events such as the reluctance of states south of the Ohio River to cede their western claims resulted in a narrowed geographic focus.[6]

When passed in New York in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance showed the influence of Jefferson. It called for dividing the territory into gridded townships, so that once the lands were surveyed, they could be sold to individuals and speculative land companies. This would provide both a new source of federal government revenue and an orderly pattern for future settlement.[8]