Congress Asserts Control Over the Northwest Territories

In just a few years, the Congress of the Confederation passed two major pieces of legislation – the Land Ordinances of 1784 and 1785 to set the guidelines on how Congress wanted the land surveyed and governed. (See 4/28/24 Post – Land Ordinance of 1785 Facilitates Public Schools and 4/21/24 Post – Rules of Engagement for Statehood

Members of the Congress soon realized they didn’t go far enough in settling land claims and establishing who would govern the land ceded to the United States by Great Britain in the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Some states (GA, NC, VA) wanted all the turf from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.

Thomas Jefferson campaigned to get his home state of Virginia to relinquish its claim to set an example for the other states. He wanted to divide the Northwest Territories into 10 rectangular states named Cherronesus, Sylvania, Assenisipia, Illinoia, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, Pelisipia, Washington, Michigania, and Saratoga.

While not rejecting Jefferson’s idea, some members—George Washington and James Monroe—urged the Congress of the Confederation to establish a committee to make recommendations on the borders of states that would be created within the Northwest Territory. What passed on July 13t, 1787, is known as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Understand that while the Congress of the Confederation was debating this bill, the Constitution Convention was in full swing. Within two months of passing of the Land Ordinance of 1787, the Convention would present a document for ratification. Almost immediately after the Constitution was ratified in 1788, newly sworn-in President George Washington urged that the First U.S. Congress re-affirm the Land Ordinance of 1787.

In 1789, Congress passed a newer, stronger version known as the Northwest Ordinance of 1789. The two prior ordinances and the Northwest Ordinance established the precedent that the central government had sovereignty over the lands acquired via the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1789 is one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by either the Congress of the Confederation or its successor, the U.S. Congress. First, it established the concept that once an individual purchased a piece of land, he/she owned the property until they sold it. By doing so, the Congress guaranteed U.S. citizens “the freedom of contract.”

Second, it abolished all unsettled state claims to land and transferred the land ownership rights to the central government, which would determine how and when the territories would be admitted as states. In Article 4, the Northwest Ordinance declared all the rivers feeding into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers free and open to any inhabitants who wanted to use them.

Third, the initial intent of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 was to establish criteria for creating new states that would be admitted as equals to the original 13 states. One requirement was that the territory must have 60,000 citizens within its borders to become a state.

Fourth, it made the provisions that each county would set aside land for educational institutions stronger.

Fifth, the Northwest Ordinance set the requirements for a territorial government. Initially, the Congress would appoint a Governor, Secretary of State, and three judges.

As payment, newly appointed governors were given an estate of 1,000 acres within the territory, and the appointed Secretary of State would receive 500 acres. The governor reported to Congress and could appoint additional magistrates and create and enforce laws. Once the territory had 5,000 male citizens, it could send representatives to Congress. The representatives were required to live in their district, serve a term of two years, and receive 200 acres of land as payment for their services.

Sixth, the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 prohibited slavery in the Northwest territory.

It is obvious that the men who wrote the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 were familiar with what would be in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Written into the ordinance are words that enable the Federal government to ensure freedom of commerce between states, guaranteed freedom of religion, requirements for trial by a jury of one’s peers, a ban on ex post facto laws, right to habeas corpus, and much more are all found in the Northwest Ordinance.

Image is the Northwest Ordnance of 1787 suggested borders for states in the Northwest Territories.

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