On this day in 1787, the Congress of the United States unanimously passed what my colleague, friend, and mentor John Willson has called the most republican law in western history—the Northwest Ordinance.
I don’t think Willson’s claim should be dismissed as hyperbolic. In fact, I think just the opposite. Today, of all days, every supporter of a republican form of government should refresh himself as to its significance.
This law is as deeply rooted in the American experience of liberty under law as is the U.S. Constitution. In some ways, it’s more western than American in its understanding of republicanism.
We current Americans would be remiss to ignore this aspect of the founding, simply because those debating at the constitutional convention were absent from the vote regarding the Northwest ordinance; indeed, they were debating the merits of the Articles of Confederation and their replacement only a short distance from the U.S. Congress. In every sense, the men who voted—without a single dissent—for the Northwest Ordinance were as much a part of the founding as were those who drafted the Constitution.
If the men of the constitutional convention tended to put national interest and power above goodness and virtue, the men in Congress did quite the opposite.
What did the Northwest Ordinance decree in its six articles: 1) freedom of religious worship; 2) the rights of the English common law, the right to associate (marriage, schools, business, churches, education, etc.) with one another without political interference, and the absolute natural right to property; 3) respect for American Indians; 4) equality among the states, thus preventing a citizen of one of the original thirteen states claiming superiority over an American from a future state; and 5) the abolition of slavery. These laws applied to what is now Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a small part of Minnesota.
They also created the spirit of what western expansion for the republic SHOULD BE.
Two years later, the French Revolutionaries in their insidious Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaimed that
the principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.
To state the obvious, we’re not the French.
It is also especially interesting to contrast what was decided on July 13 in Congress with what was being contested only a short distance away. Whereas the Congressmen unanimously proclaimed the Northwest Territory off limits for slavery, the men of the constitutional convention fought one another bitterly over the issue.
On August 8, Rufus King of New York proclaimed, “the admission of slaves was a most grating circumstance to his mind.”
Gouvenor Morris labeled slavery a “nefarious institution—It was the curse of heaven.”
Of course, the founders of the constitutional convention—much to the unnecessary shame they brought upon the republic—allowed slavery to remain, despite the voiced objections to the institution, especially in what was supposedly a free republic. In some of the final words argued on the subject in the constitutional convention, Rutlidge spoke for the majority of men present when he stated on August 21, “Religion & humanity had nothing to do with question—Interest alone is the governing principle with Nations.”
One can only imagine how different the history of the republic would be had the founders of the U.S. Constitution followed the lead of those in Congress.
Regardless, what happened, happened.
Still, as advocates of republican government, we would do well to remember the glories of the Old Northwest and its ordinances, offering perhaps the finest understanding of republican citizenship yet proclaimed in this world of sorrows.
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.