The birth of the Buckeye State

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COLUMBUS – On March 1, 1803, Ohio became the 17th state to enter the Union, but the story of Ohio statehood dates to 1787 and the creation of the Northwest Territory.

This territory was a large body of unsettled land that encompassed what are now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota.

Steps to statehood. The Ordinance of 1787 established not only how the territory was to be governed, but also the procedures under which new territory could obtain full statehood. Those included: the territory being ruled by a governor, a secretary and three judges appointed by Congress to perform the executive, legislative and judicial functions of government; the formation of a house of representatives; and the approval of a state constitution.

Once completed, the territory could apply to the federal government for statehood.

With criteria in place, and amid a flurry of westward expansion as statehood-seeking settlers poured into Ohio, the process accelerated – but not without controversy.

Boundary debate. Ohio’s boundaries are well known today, but in the early 1800s, they were a hotly debated issue, fueled by politics and personalities.

Territorial governor Arthur St. Clair led one faction that sought to divide the state and delay statehood indefinitely. Statehood supporter Thomas Worthington led another group.

Called “the father of Ohio statehood,” Worthington urged Congress to keep the divisions set forth in the Northwest Ordinance and reject St. Clair’s plan.

In 1800, Congress agreed with Worthington’s group.

That same year, Ohio’s population reached about 45,000. The total was less than the 60,000 required by the Northwest Ordinance before a territory could apply for statehood, but Worthington and other Ohio leaders, certain that the population soon would reach 60,000, moved quickly to get in place a state constitution.

In April 1802, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law the Enabling Act, which “enabled” the territory to become a state. It established the state boundaries and gave its people the right to establish a constitution.

First constitution. Ohio’s first constitutional convention convened in Chillicothe in November 1802.

Thirty-five men required 29 days to write the constitution. One reason for the brisk pace was that all but one drafter favored statehood.

The constitution set the first state election for January 1803. Offices to be elected included: state senators and representatives, governor, sheriffs, township trustees, justices of the peace and coroners.

Hand-delivered. Worthington was chosen to hand-deliver the constitution to Congress. After a three-week journey, he arrived Dec. 22, 1802, in Washington, D.C., where he met with Jefferson before delivering the document to Congress.

Ohio’s constitution was approved by Congress, then signed by President Jefferson on Feb. 19, 1803. By this time, the January elections had been held, with Edward Tiffin – Worthington’s brother-in-law – elected governor.

Official “state” business was conducted for the first time on March 1, 1803, when Tiffin and members of the first Ohio General Assembly convened in Chillicothe, site of the first state capitol building.

The transfer of power from territorial officers to elected state officials was complete.

Ohio’s statehood in 1803 is a certainty but the custom of Congress formally declaring a state to be one of the United States began only in 1812, with the admission of Louisiana, the next state after Ohio to enter the Union. In 1953, during Ohio’s sesquicentennial, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation retroactively making March 1, 1803, the formal date Ohio was admitted to the Union.

(Source: Ohio Bicentennial Commission)

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