2012 Articles‎ > ‎

No commemorations this year marking 225th anniversaries of U. S. Constitution and anti-slavery Northwest Ordinance

1787 document basis for Ohio settlement

No commemorations this year marking 225th anniversaries of U. S. Constitution and anti-slavery Northwest Ordinance

Compiled by Jim Blount

This year, 2012 -- while the nation is still officially observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 -- recognition of two 1787 documents have been neglected. One is familiar -- the U. S. Constitution. The other is obscure -- the Northwest Ordinance. They rank with the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and the Bill of Rights as the basis for governing the United States.

Granted, 225th anniversaries don’t generate much excitement. The snub -- intentional or not, and a result of the economy -- is understandable. War milestones offer opportunities for parades, reenactments and other participatory events. Not so with important documents.

If it was otherwise, there may have been a July 13 holiday and Americans could be preparing to observe another one Sept. 17.

The lack of attention -- including the absence of congressional proclamations, creation of special national commissions and official days of commemoration -- could be another example of the inability of Congress to agree on anything.

The 1787 and 2012 comparison is stark. Citizens of all political leanings are disappointed with the current performance of the U. S. Congress. As 2012 began, Congress wasn’t very popular.

"A new record-low 11% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, the lowest single rating in Gallup’s history of asking this question since 1974," reported the Gallup organization as the year began. "This earns Congress a 17% yearly average [for 2011], the lowest annual congressional approval rating in Gallup history."

Polling -- and many other practices now routinely associated with politics and governing -- wasn’t around in 1787. It was obvious then -- when the new nation didn’t have a president -- that it was the sole responsibility of deliberative bodies to set the course for the United States. There weren’t three branches of federal government then. There wasn’t a president or a Supreme Court; only the Continental Congress.

Actions 225 years ago are reminders that after reasonable debate, national leaders with differing opinions can compromise and draft meaningful documents.

Both 1787 acts were products of lively debates -- not words merely rubber stamped by the delegates. But they were completed in a short time -- in blazing speed based on 2012 legislative working standards.

The Constitutional Convention began May 25, 1787, in the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. George Washington was the unanimous choice as president of the convention, whose sessions were conducted in secrecy.

Less than four months later -- Sept. 17, 1787 -- each of the 12 participating states approved the blueprint for federal government and forwarded it to the Continental Congress in New York City. The U. S. Constitution was effective nine months later, June 21, 1788, with ratification by New Hampshire.

* * * * *
The eighth Continental Congress, meeting in New York’s Federal Hall, crafted and adopted the Northwest Ordinance in less than two weeks that summer. Segments of the measure had been considered in previous years, probably a factor in its speedy approval.

July 11, with Arthur St. Clair of Pennsylvania in the president’s chair, Congress began weighing the 1787 version of the proposed plan for governing the territory north and west of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River, then the nation’s western boundary.

Two days later, July 13, it was enacted by an 8-0 vote. The Friday the 13th balloting was by states, not by the number of delegates favoring the action.

Oct. 5, Congress selected one its own -- Arthur St. Clair -- as the first governor of the Northwest Territory. He was responsible for enforcing the ordinance and organizing a semblance of government in the wilderness, part of which became Ohio. It was St. Clair who changed the name of a territorial village on the Ohio River from Losantiville to Cincinnati in 1790, and who ordered the building of Fort Hamilton in 1791.

* * * * *

Usually called either the Northwest Ordinance or the Ordinance of 1787, its official designation was An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio River.

Its provisions -- too numerous to cover in detail in this article -- included a process for creating from three to five new states and a bill of rights protecting religious freedom, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury and other individual rights and forbidding slavery.

The rights enumerated within the Ordinance of 1787 were the first mandated in a federal document and fueled the movement to have them later added to the Constitution in the form of the Bill of Rights -- the first 10 amendments.

"On to Ohio!" was a slogan of some easterners eager to move over the Appalachians and begin settlement in the nation’s "first West." Adoption of the ordinance was the starting signal for that migration.

In 1803, Ohio was the first state formed within the territory. Later, from 1816 through 1858, it was joined by Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. That portion of Minnesota east of the Mississippi River also was within the Northwest Territory.

* * * * *
The two fundamental documents of 1787 were the work of separate government bodies, meeting about 90 miles apart at the same time. Under the best conditions, travel time between New York and Philadelphia was at least 24 hours.

Distance and time didn’t stop at least 10 men from representing their states in both the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention that summer. They were James Madison of Virginia; Rufus King and Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts; William Blount of North Carolina; Pierce Butler of South Carolina; John Langdon and Nicholas Gilman of New Hampshire; William Few and William Pierce of Georgia; and William S. Johnson of Connecticut. Blount, Few and Johnson signed both documents.

* * * * *
The Constitution was a plan for a federal government, replacing the clumsy Articles of Confederation, a loose association of states from 1781 until 1788. The Ordinance of 1787 set the standards -- responsibilities and limitations -- for controlling new territories and the criteria for establishing new states.

In the ordinance, the last item -- article six of section 14 -- declared: "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid."

In contrast, the Constitution -- in disguised wording in Article 1, Section 9 -- allowed the slave trade to continue until at least 1808. That section said: "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person."

For congressional representation, another Constitution clause equated a slave to 3/5ths of a white person, but slaves weren’t granted voting privileges. The words slave, slavery and slave trade weren’t used in the Constitution.

There’s no documentation of the proceedings of the New York meetings that drafted the Northwest Ordinance. But some historians have credited the slavery prohibition article to Nathan Dane of Massachusetts. At the last minute, on the final reading of the ordinance, Dane is believed to have added the clause that prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory.

* * * * *
The Northwest Ordinance didn’t end the slavery debate in the new territory or in the nation. It raised several questions, including:
1. Did the prohibition apply only while the western region was a territory?
2. Did it apply to new states formed within the territory? Later, could framers of the first Ohio Constitution, for example, include a provision allowing slavery?
3. Did the Northwest Ordinance set an anti-slavery precedent for future territories created by the federal government?

Some people moving from southern slave states into the Northwest Territory brought their human property with them, despite the prohibition in the ordinance. When new states were formed, some early legislatures debated proposals that would have permited slavery.

* * * * *
The first step in opening legal settlement of Ohio had been approval of the Land Ordinance of 1785, action that complemented the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.

When the American Revolution officially ended in 1783, several of the original states had conflicting claims to land west of the Appalachian range. The dilemma was mostly resolved by 1784, when the Continental Congress appointed a committee to devise a plan for settling and governing the western wilderness.

Complicating factors facing Congress included (1) demands of veterans of the revolution to receive the land bounties they had been promised for their service; (2) problems caused by squatters who occupied some of the land without paying for it; (3) how to divide and disperse parcels within a vast unknown territory; and (4) how could the government raise revenue to pay its debts, including costs related to the revolution.

Some of these issues were addressed with adoption May 20, 1785, of the Land Ordinance of 1785. It provided for surveying the uncharted region west of Pennsylvania, north of the Ohio River, east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes. It organized the territory into sections and townships, a system that later enabled formation of counties and states.

The square, orderly land divisions -- although not always perfect -- became a simplified basis for the government as it sold and granted property within the Northwest Territory. The land division system was used in other territories as the nation expanded west.

* * * * *
The combined 1787 enactments of the U. S. Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance -- plus the 1785 Land Ordinance -- launched the federal government as we know it today and created a plan for national expansion, as evidenced by events during the next four years from 1788 to 1791:

April 7, 1788.-- Some veterans of the American Revolution -- organized as the Ohio Company -- founded Marietta at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. Marietta was the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory and in the portion that later became Ohio.

June 21, 1788 -- New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, the number required, according to Article VII, to make it the law of the land.

April 1, 1789 -- The first U. S. House of Representatives, elected under the new Constitution, was organized, with 30 of its 59 members present. New York City was the nation’s capital until Aug. 12, 1790.

April 6, 1789 -- The first U. S. Senate met with nine of its 22 members present. As specified in the Constitution, the senators counted ballots that had been cast by presidential electors and declared George Washington the first president of the United States.

April 30, 1789 -- George Washington was inaugurated as the first U. S. president. Washington served two terms, 1789-1797.

Sept. 25, 1789 -- The U. S. Congress approved 12 proposed amendments to the Constitution, which would provide civil liberties and rights to the people.

Dec. 7, 1790 -- Philadelphia became the new national capital, and remained so until the move to Washington, D. C., in November 1800.

Sept. 30, 1791 -- Fort Hamilton -- ordered built by Gen. Arthur St. Clair, also territorial governor -- was completed. The date is considered the founding date for the City of Hamilton.

Nov. 4, 1791 -- An Indian coalition, led by Little Turtle, a Miami chief, defeated Gen. St. Clair’s army in an unnamed battles at a site that later became Fort Recovery, Ohio.

Dec. 15, 1791.-- Virginia was the 11th state to ratify 10 of the constitutional amendments proposed by Congress. The 10 amendments became known as the Bill of Rights.