National government under the Articles of Confederation is often painted as inept and worthless – however at the same time the Philadelphia convention was thrashing out the new constitution, the Confederation Congress passed one of the most significant acts in the early history of the United States. The Northwest Ordinance (July 1787) outlined the means by which the vast territories between the Appalachian mountains and the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers would be settled, governed and admitted to the union. Some of the most vexing questions of the pre-revolutionary era – state rivalry, territorial claims and slavery – were addressed, though not fully resolved, by the Ordinance. Nevertheless it established the framework and the process by which the new nation would unfold from 13 states along the eastern seaboard, into the 50-state federation we know today.
At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, most states initiated claims on land in the western territories. In the 1780s these claims remained and eventually led to disagreement, dispute and, in some cases, minor border conflicts that were damaging to the tentative unity of the new nation. It was also illogical that the expansive western territories be governed from the thirteen states, most of which were coastal and separated from the new lands by vast distances, lakes, mountains and rivers. It made more sense to admit new states rather than to expand existing ones, an argument initially made by Thomas Jefferson (he suggested carving the territory into seventeen equally-sized oblong blocks, each becoming a new member of the federal United States). Jefferson’s 1784 proposal wasn’t accepted but it provided the basis for the Northwest Ordinance three years later. Between the end of hostilities with Britain and the passing of the Ordinance, Congress convinced many of the 13 states to cede (give up) their claims to westward territories. Some states did this willingly, recognising that interstate tensions and conflicts were damaging the new nation. Others were bribed, with Congress offering to assume their war debts from the revolution.
Paul Finkelman, historian
With state claims removed, the Northwest Ordinance decreed that new settlements in the west would be under the control of Congress, however settlers could initiate a territorial assembly, make local laws, appoint judges and (once the population had reached 60,000) apply for statehood. The Ordinance instructed that the “…utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken without their consent…”, an idealistic but unrealistic measure. More controversially, the Ordinance prohibited slavery in all new territories and states of the west, a measure supported by key figures including Washington, Jefferson and Madison. The ban on slavery riled southerners who wished to settle in the west, along with Negro labour; it also angered governments and politicians in the south, who argued that Congress had no authority to ban slavery in new and future states. This animosity over slavery and states’ rights lingered for decades, contributing to the split of the union which led to the American Civil War (1861-65).