The Northwest Ordinance

July 8, 2012

“There Shall Be Neither Slavery Nor Involuntary Servitude”

In September of 1787, the representatives from the United States in Philadelphia concluded their work and, at last, devised a new government for the 13 states. Their purpose for doing so, as it is well known, was initially to correct the existing political union that governed the newly independent states, the treaty known as the Articles of Confederation. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that their attempt to remedy what James Madison identified as the “Vices of the Political System of the United States” could not simply be done through amending the existing form — to rid the system of those vices, a new form of government would have to be devised altogether.

Despite the seemingly unending list of difficulties, complications, and inefficiencies of the Articles, there is one redeeming and noteworthy act that was the result of the Congress of the Confederation. On July 13, 1787 — while delegates from the very states they governed simultaneously convened to draft the constitution that would effectively replace them — the Congress of the Confederation passed the Northwest Ordinance. For months the Congress waited for the Northwest Ordinance to come to a vote, but could not proceed as a quorum of representatives could not be established to conduct any business; due, namely, to the fact that many of the members serving in the Congress of the Confederation where serving as delegates in Philadelphia debating the substance of what would be the new Constitution.

Encompassing what would eventually be identified as the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, the Northwest Ordinance effectively added the Northwest Territory to the Confederation of the United Sates and was to be governed by the national government. This concept of adding territories to the existing union states established the concept that new states were to be added, rather than for existing states to simply expand their boundaries and add territory. Early maps of North America depict the dramatic land claims made by the original states such as the boundless westward area claimed by Virginia or even the Connecticut Western Reserve which was a part of the Northwest Territory. From 1663 to 1800, the state of Connecticut laid claim to what is now Northeast Ohio.

Finally, the greatest provision of the Northwest Ordinance was the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territory. Article VI of the ordinance reads that “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

This represented the first gesture the Unites States to eradicating the sin of slavery from the continent. It was an aggressive and principled move by the Congress of Confederation to regulate so boldly a politically incendiary issue. It effectively established the Ohio River as the dividing line between the free states and the slave states and provided a clear safe haven for those souls escaping the shackles of barbarism and human degradation — that is, with the understanding that if they are discovered in this free land as escaped slaves, they could legally returned upon the burden of proof of the owner. This act effectively began the great political debate over admitting free or slave states into the Union and proved to be one of the first steps taken toward the Civil War.

Yet, as the new Constitution was ratified, the fate of the Northwest Ordinance would still need to be affirmed by the Congress of the new government as the provisions from the old regime do not transcend to the next. Upholding the historic provisions of the Northwest Ordinance, the new Congress affirmed the principled work of the Confederation Congress in 1789.

–Dantan Wernecke is a recent graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program having majored in history and political science at Ashland University.

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