Give Thanks for the Northwest Ordinance

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Unsure of what to be thankful for this Thanksgiving season? Here's a suggestion of something to be thankful for: the Northwest Ordinance.

You might ask, what is the Northwest Ordinance? The answer: It's a law passed by the Confederation Congress meeting openly in New York in July 1787, even as the Constitutional Convention was meeting behind closed doors and windows in Philadelphia.

The ordinance provided a plan for governance for the American territory west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. It provided that the land be surveyed and divided into 6-mile-by-6-mile townships — hence the square checkerboard landscape you can see from the plane — with one mile-square section devoted to support education. It provided that the Northwest could be divided into territories to be governed by Congress but also, controversially at the time, into separate states fully equal to the original 13. To that, we owe the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and (part of) Minnesota.

The provision for which I think we should give special thanks is Article VI: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.”

For years, historians were not clear on how this provision found its way into the law. A first draft of the ordinance, including a ban on slavery, was introduced by Thomas Jefferson in 1784, but he soon went off to be ambassador to France, and subsequent drafts lacked the slavery ban.

But an anti-slavery impulse was in the air in the 1780s. American revolutionaries had been stung by Samuel Johnson's jibe, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to abolish slavery, and Massachusetts adopted a constitution drafted largely by John Adams that its courts interpreted as abolishing slavery. New Hampshire courts followed suit, and the legislatures in Rhode Island and Connecticut voted to abolish slavery in 1784.

As the historian Alan Taylor has pointed out, these laws and those passed by New York and New Jersey in 1799 and 1804 provided for only partial and gradual emancipation. The Northwest Ordinance went much further.

Who was responsible? Historian Harlow Lindley, in a monograph prepared in 1937 for the celebration of the ordinance's 150th anniversary, assigns it to Ipswich, Massachusetts, minister Manasseh Cutler, lobbyist for a company of anti-slavery New Englanders willing to pay the government $3.5 million for a huge land grant north of the Ohio River. Cutler spent days in New York, cajoling members of Congress and drafting amendments, in the crucial weeks of July 1787.

Closer to the ordinance's 250th anniversary, the late historian David McCullough, in his 2019 book “The Pioneers,” also credits Cutler for the provision. The book goes on to tell how Cutler's son Ephraim Cutler founded the first Northwest Territory settlement at Marietta, today a pleasant New Englandish town on the Ohio River.

Like any law, the Northwest Ordinance's ban on slavery was not self-enforcing. The southern portions of what became Ohio, Indiana and Illinois attracted many settlers from Virginia and other slave states, and some sought to pass state laws to legalize slavery north of the river.

Thankfully, they failed. McCullough's “Pioneers” tells how Ephraim Cutler, elected to the legislature, beat back attempts to allow slavery. Kurt Leichtle and Bruce Carveth's “Crusade Against Slavery” and Suzanne Cooper Guasco's “Confronting Slavery” tell the extraordinary story of Edward Coles, a Virginia plantation heir, who freed his slaves and purchased land for them in the new state of Illinois.

Coles had been chief aide to President James Madison and tried to persuade him to free his slaves; Madison, whose grandfather had been murdered by a slave, wasn't interested. Coles was more effective in the Northwest. He was elected governor of Illinois in 1822 and led the successful fight to defeat a referendum to allow slavery in that state.

Coles lived long enough to campaign for Abraham Lincoln and to see the 13th Amendment ratified in 1865. It is hard to imagine how a slavery opponent such as Lincoln could have had a successful political career in an Illinois in the absence of the Northwest Ordinance and Coles' fight against slavery.

The Northwest Ordinance had an even broader effect in defining the character of what many consider the quintessential American region. In “The Good Country” , his 2022 history of the 19th-century Midwest, historian Jon Lauck writes, “The Ordinance gave a unique cast to the Midwest,” and that the ban on slavery “engendered a sense of the Midwest ‘as a section with a distinct character that linked free institutions to economic development.'”

In the century after the ordinance, the free states of the Midwest, as Lauck points out, led the nation in universal male suffrage, widespread literacy and civic and local cultural institutions.

White Southerners may have brought a few slaves into Northwest Territory states — the Dred Scott case arose from a similar situation — but the ordinance clearly deterred large slaveholders from moving their operations there, as some did to the slave state of Missouri. And it provided fertile ground for abolitionists and terminuses on the Underground Railroad. “For opponents of slavery in the region,” Lauck writes, the ordinance “was critical to their organizing, rhetoric and ultimate success.”

Politically, in the four-candidate presidential election of 1860, the states carved out of the Northwest Ordinance voted 53% for Abraham Lincoln and, with more than 50% in each state, he won all 62 of their electoral votes. The motivated manpower and the growing industrial strength of the Midwest were indispensable to the Union's victory in the Civil War.

Americans have celebrated the anniversaries of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention, but a celebration of this law that passed even while the convention was at work is in order too. So, this Thanksgiving season, take a moment to give thanks for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.



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