How the Northwest Ordinance Promoted a Just Society

How the Northwest Ordinance Promoted a Just Society

“The great title deeds”

In an illu­mi­nat­ing inter­view on the North­west Ordi­nance, Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Lar­ry P. Arnn explains one of America’s key found­ing doc­u­ments.  This is not a usu­al sub­ject here. Indeed Churchill’s His­to­ry of the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples doesn’t even men­tion it. Nonethe­less— the North­west Ordi­nance of 1787 qual­i­fies as one of Churchill’s “great title-deeds of Anglo-Amer­i­can lib­er­ties.” I take the lib­er­ty of rec­om­mend­ing this 37-minute audio to read­ers: Click here.
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The inter­view didn’t answer all my ques­tions but taught me things I didn’t know. I doubt that many Amer­i­can school­child­ren know them either. Nev­er­the­less, the North­west Ordi­nance deserves broad­er familiarity.

Northwest Ordinance Provisions

Dr. Arnn’s remarks need lit­tle elab­o­ra­tion here. But among the points he empha­sizes are these.
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1) There were actu­al­ly two vast land acts, the oth­er 1785.
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2) That both acts passed under the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion. The North­west Ordi­nance passed in New York in July 1787, while the Con­sti­tu­tion was being debat­ed in Philadel­phia.  This con­tra­dicts my school­boy impres­sions that noth­ing of impor­tance hap­pened between the end of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion (1783) and adop­tion of the Constitution.
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3) On acts of nation­al import, the Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion required una­nim­i­ty, includ­ing the South. This was why, in many cas­es, they were inad­e­quate for deal­ing with mat­ters apply­ing to the states as a whole.
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4) That the acts were nec­es­sary to pay for the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War. The Arti­cles of Con­fed­er­a­tion did not con­vey the right to levy nation­wide tax­a­tion, and the Con­gress that had fought the war was deeply in debt.
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5) The North­west Ordi­nance cre­at­ed the town­ships that are still basic com­po­nents of Amer­i­can local gov­ern­ment today. They were formed in the shape of blocks for ease of assign­ment, retaining one space in the mid­dle of each. Its pur­pose was not gov­ern­ment, as you might expect. It was edu­ca­tion, which the founders con­sid­ered the most essen­tial of pub­lic services.
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6) Such con­cepts marked marked a dra­mat­ic depar­ture from Euro­pean and feu­dal norms. In Eng­land, for exam­ple, gen­er­a­tions farmed or worked on land belong­ing to oth­ers. Now, the Ordi­nance was say­ing, that any Amer­i­can cit­i­zen could buy and own his own land.

Against Slavery

7) The North­west Ordi­nance banned slav­ery through­out the new ter­ri­to­ry. This effec­tive­ly made the Unit­ed States two-thirds slave-free, over three decades before the British Empire banned the slave trade.
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Northwest Ordinance
The North­west Ordi­nance added new and equal states. (GNU Free Doc­u­men­ta­tion License, Free Soft­ware Foundation)

8) More­over, and aston­ish­ing­ly the ter­ri­to­ry gov­erned by the North­west Ordi­nance was ced­ed large­ly by Vir­ginia, the lead­ing slave­hold­ing state. Yet the Ordi­nance assured the cre­ation of states in all respects equal to the orig­i­nal 13.

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9) And those states—Ohio, Indi­ana, Illi­nois, Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin and Minnesota—would in time pro­vide the sur­feit of troops who would win the Civ­il War, pre­serv­ing the union and end­ing slav­ery where it still existed.

No nation on the planet…

…had ever before declared such pre­cepts: that all are equal, enti­tled to nat­ur­al rights and rule of law, how­ev­er imper­fect­ly it served those truths in the begin­ning. Here Dr. Arnn’s point is pow­er­ful. Much of the “title-deeds” were writ­ten by Thomas Jef­fer­son, so often por­trayed as a hyp­ocrite slave own­er. Yet Jef­fer­son nev­er spoke about slav­ery except to con­demn it. We can argue that he insuf­fi­cient­ly opposed it, Dr. Arnn says. But then we have to con­sid­er what was pos­si­ble in the state of things. How­ev­er, no one can argue that he saw it as any­thing but a moral wrong that had to go.
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Years before the Rev­o­lu­tion, Ben­jamin Franklin was liv­ing main­ly in Lon­don, where he rep­re­sent­ed the inter­ests of sev­er­al colonies includ­ing Geor­gia, Mass­a­chu­setts and New Jer­sey. On sev­er­al occa­sions, Dr. Arnn notes, Franklin had tried to explain the new ideas about nat­ur­al rights flour­ish­ing in the Amer­i­can colonies, all the while insist­ing that they remained loy­al to the Crown. The Eng­lish ridiculed him and shout­ed him down. Even­tu­al­ly Franklin report­ed home to brace for war. In France, where sim­i­lar ideas were per­co­lat­ing, Franklin found broad­er wel­come, although those ideas wouldn’t work out quite as neat­ly there as they would in North America.

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