Early ordinances set the path for the country

appalachian mountains

In the years immediately following the American Revolution and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, it was only too clear to foreign government — and to our own leaders at home — that the Articles of Confederation Congress was merely a rope of sand binding together 13 semi-independent small nations.

The 13 nations did as they pleased and were wholly irresponsible to each other. It soon became evident that Congress was doomed to fail in its attempt to make the Articles of Confederation workable.

Paper power proved to be very different from actual power. The states failed lamentably to respect the needs and requirements of the National Government.

National land policy

By the close of 1789, many national leaders were eager to find a wholly new basis for the union. However, the Articles of Confederation was brilliantly successful in inaugurating a national land policy for the land we acquired by the Treaty of Paris. The enormous territory north of the Ohio River was soon known as the “Old Northwest.”

In March of 1784, the Congress of the Confederation accepted the cession of lands Virginia had claimed west of the Appalachian Mountains. A congressional committee headed by Thomas Jefferson, delegate from Virginia, then took steps to provide for the political organization of the vast area south of the Great Lakes, west of the Appalachians, and east of the Mississippi River.

The committee’s task was to draft legislation for the disposal of the land as well as for the government of its settlers. The proposal of Jefferson’s committee met the approval of Congress as the Ordinance of 1784.

Plan for the West

The Ordinance of 1784 divided the West into 18 districts. Each district would be admitted to the Union when its population equaled that of the least populous of the original 13 states.

The document envisaged as many as 10 new states. It was to become effective once all western lands claimed by states had been ceded to the government.

Before the states ceded their land, two new ordinances were adopted which superseded that of 1784. The first of the two documents was the Ordinance of 1785, which was Congress’ plan to sell the western lands in order to raise sorely-needed revenue.

It accepted Jefferson’s earlier proposal for a rectilinear system of surveying but rejected the 10 mile square unit. Instead, a township six miles square and sections one-mile square (640 acres) was proposed. The Ordinance also made provision for the sale of land at a minimum of one dollar per acre.

In accordance with a New England precedent, section 16 of each township was to be reserved as a bounty to public schools. The rest of the land was to be offered for sale at auction.

Northwest Ordinance

Two years later, in the extraordinary Northwest Ordinance, the Congress framed a political regime for the Old Northwest. The Ordinance of 1787, known as the Northwest Ordinance, was opposed to the liberality of the Ordinance of 1784.

The new ordinance slowed down the process by which a territory might become a state, but it added certain important features and provided for the more orderly creation of new states The Northwest Ordinance was drafted to provide control over the territory north of the Ohio River.

To do so, Congress provided that the entire Northwest region was to be governed temporarily as a single territory, administered by a governor and three judges appointed by Congress. When the population reached five thousand free adult male inhabitants, the citizens could select representation to a territorial assembly.

The territory was to be divided into no fewer than three and no more than five districts. When the population of one of the districts reached 60,000, a constitution could be written that guaranteed a republican form of government, and the district could apply for statehood on an equal footing with states in the Union.

Rights of citizens

The Ordinance of 1787 also guaranteed certain basic rights to citizens. A bill of rights provided for freedom of religion, benefits of writs of Habeas Corpus, and the right of trial by jury, bail and general process of law.

The third article of the document is most interesting, especially to today’s citizens: “religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The Ordinance also called for the settlers to observe the treaties established with the Indians, provide equitable taxation for all citizens and guarantee the right of free navigation of the waters leading to the Mississippi and St. Lawrence.

The last article was epoch-making for its time. “There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the territory.”

This determined that the society that developed north of the Ohio River would be free. No such provision was written into the documents establishing the Southwest territory in 1790. The pattern established by the Northwest Ordinance was more or less followed in the later admission of states into the Union.

Texas and California came into the Union without a territory period following the Mexican War. Others, such as Michigan, caused trouble because of boundary disputes with neighboring states.

As for the Ohio country, Arthur St. Clair, President of the Confederation Congress in 1787, was appointed first governor of the territory. Indiana territory was organized in 1803, the same year in which Ohio entered the Union, but entered as a state in 1816 as did Illinois in 1818, Michigan in 1837, and Wisconsin in 1848.

The Ordinance of 1787 has been tagged the most important and far reaching legislation by the Confederation Congress. It provided for three definite stages of orderly government, culminating in statehood on an equality with the older states.

It gave the residents training in self-government and caused the inhabitants to look to the central government for authority. The states-rights doctrine was conspicuously absent in the states formed under the Ordinance.

The three Ordinances contributed a fundamental idea to America’s colonial system. The Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 still remain as landmarks in the orderly development of the American scheme of life.

Under the operation of the policies they first established, millions of Americans today enjoy a security of life and a degree of liberty to which most of the people of the earth are still strangers.

But even when Congress was debating the Northwest Ordinance, another debate was occurring in Philadelphia — the Constitution.

That’s your history!


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!

Previous articleRoundup of FFA news for June 10, 2021
Next articleBig boy moves
Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to: editorial@farmanddairy.com.



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.