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This Week in History:
The Northwest Ordinance — July 14-20, 1787

July 2010

The Northwest Territory includes most of what we call the "Midwest".

In thinking about the true republican character of the United States, to which our nation is long overdue to return, it is of interest to look at the policy the Founders adopted toward absorbing the Western lands. This week we recall that policy as adopted by the founders on July 13, 1787, with the Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, commonly known as The Northwest Ordinance.

The Northwest Territory was the common property of all the states, formed from a huge area of land previously claimed by the Commonwealth of Virginia. It extended westward from Pennsylvania all the way to the Mississippi River.

Under the Northwest Ordinance, passed in 1787, many of the provisions of U.S. Constitution, passed by a different representative body two months later, were established. Slavery was prohibited in all territory north of the Ohio River, and freedom of religion was guaranteed to all. In each section of land, lots had been set aside for the building of public grammar schools, secondary academies, and even colleges.

The bulk of the ordinance was devoted to establishing the form of governance in the Territory, in such a way as to prepare the territories to become anywhere from three to five states of the United States, once they had been sufficiently populated. The second section of the Ordinance read as follows:

"And, 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, which forever hereafter shall be formed in the said territory; to provide also for the establishment of States, and permanent government therein, and for their admission to a share in the federal councils on an equal footing with the original States, at as early periods as may be consistent with the general interest:..."

At that point, six specific articles were outlined. The first read:

"No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory."

The second guaranteed the rights of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and bail for all but capital offenses. "No cruel or unusual punishments shall be inflicted," Article II read, going on to provide reasonable rights to property.

Article 3 read: "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 utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them."

Article 4 outlined the tax obligations of the territories and ensured that the navigable waters in the territories be "common highways and forever free" to the inhabitants of the entire United States.

Article 5 defined the parameters of "not less than three nor more than five States" being established in the area, indicating that once any of said States had 60,000 free inhabitants, it could be admitted on "equal footing" with the other states, "provided, the constitution and government so to be formed, shall be republican, and in conformity to the principles contained in these articles...."

Article 6 read as follows: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party has been duly convicted...," followed by a fugitive slave provision.

Colonization of this region, often called the Ohio Territory, had been envisioned by George Washington as early as 1777, but it was not until June 5, 1788 that the first pioneer families reached the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers, in the newly opened Northwest Territory. They were welcomed by the 80 or so men who had preceded them in April and May to build housing and plant crops. Most of these early arrivals were New England veterans of the Revolutionary War, who had banded together in a group called the Ohio Company of Associates in order to settle the fertile area north of the Ohio River.

It was wise, and necessary, to people these territories with the military, since, despite provisions of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the British refused to evacuate their forts along the Great Lakes. Therefore, the new American settlers were forced to build towns only near the Territory's southern boundary, since Britain still continued her policy of sending forth her Indian allies to scalp settlers and burn farms and villages.


This article was originally published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

Related pages:

This Week in American History (main page)

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