We should remember to the thankful for the Northwest Ordinance

Unsure of what to be thankful for this 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. 

The ordinance provided a plan for governance for the American territory west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. 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. 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, Mass., 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.

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 tells how Cutler’s son, Ephraim, founded the first Northwest Territory settlement at Marietta. 

McCullough’s “Pioneers” tells how Ephraim Cutler, elected to the legislature, beat back attempts to allow 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.'” 

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.

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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