There are three remarkable early American documents. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution readily come to mind, but few Americans are aware of the Northwest Ordinance, passed on July 13 230 years ago by the Second Continental Congress. It was remarkable because it became the means by which the West was settled, land was sold to individuals, territories were transformed into states, and settlers were provided with rights eventually confirmed by the Bill of Rights.
The background to the legislation is obvious. America defeated the British in the Revolutionary War that ended in 1783; territory acquired from the peace extended from west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River and east to the Mississippi River and had to be populated so as to advance economic growth of a fledgling nation.
Because the first government under independence was subject to the Articles of Confederation, which had no power of taxation (that’s what Revolutionaries fought against), it was incumbent on the Continental Congress to find a means to generate revenue. Ergo, the idea arose and was widespread that the newly acquired lands belonged to the federal government, should be sold and eventually become new states. But it was difficult to get laws approved in the Congress. Each state had one vote but may have had several representatives who had to agree on how the state would vote. Moreover, it took nine of the 13 states to pass a proposal.
To be sure, existing states, in particular New York and Virginia, claimed that their colonial charters gave them the right to extend their western borders through the new territory. Landlocked states resisted, and finally by March 1, 1784, the Old Dominion finally acquiesced in giving up all western land claims. Two other pieces of congressional legislation in 1784 and 1785 decided on the surveying of the western lands, dividing properties into a basic unit of a township (six square miles).
The federal government would sell the land to prospective buyers for a dollar an acre, but the minimum parcel was 640 acres, which simply meant that land companies with money would buy the big blocks and sell them in smaller chunks to settlers, who could not rely on the feudal strategy of primogeniture by bequeathing the lands to the eldest son. Instead, the lands had to be divided among all children. And in every township, a certain portion was reserved for the new territory to devote to education, to wit, a public school system.
What the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided was a system of breaking up the western acquisition into entities that could become states on an equal footing with the original 13 states. It divided the area into five territories — Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin — and set incremental steps to statehood. At first, Congress would appoint a governor and judges for each territory; once the population reached 5,000 adult males, it could elect a legislature; at 60,000 population, petition for statehood could be submitted to Congress.
Of course, settlers wanted more than just the opportunity for western land. They wanted rights, and the ordinance guaranteed that “no person … shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments.” Entitlement to the benefits of habeas corpus and trial by jury was delineated, and slavery and involuntary service were proscribed. And “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
From a practical standpoint, passage of the Northwest Ordinance by 1787 (taking only a week to debate and modify) came just as the Continental Congress was running low on funds, with land sales mushrooming to fill government coffers.
As for the individuals behind the legislation, Thomas Jefferson played a role, as did other less-famous legislators, Nathan Dane and Rufus King, representatives from Massachusetts. And when the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the 150th anniversary of the legislation in 1937, it used the portraits of Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam, figures behind the Ohio Company of Associates that implemented the selling of parcels to individuals.
But no matter who were the heroes. The act was remarkable. It was re-ratified by first Congress under the Constitution. In fact, 31 states entered the union under the model of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.