Here’s something to be thankful for: the Northwest Ordinance.
You might ask: What is the Northwest Ordinance? The Answer: It is a law passed publicly in New York by the Confederacy Congress in July 1787, even as the Constitutional Convention was sitting behind closed doors (and windows) in Philadelphia.
The ordinance provided a government plan for the American territory west of Pennsylvania and north of the Ohio River. It called for the country to be surveyed and divided into six-mile by six-mile townships – hence the square checkerboard landscape you can see from the plane – with a one-square-mile section devoted to supporting education.
It provided that the Northwest could be divided into territories to be governed by Congress, but also, controversial at the time, into separate states identical to the original 13. To this we owe the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin and (part of) Minnesota.
The provision for which I think we should be especially thankful is Article VI: “There shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in the said territory.”
For years, historians have been puzzled as to how this provision entered the law. A first draft of the ordinance, including a ban on slavery, was introduced by Thomas Jefferson in 1784, but he soon went to France as ambassador, and subsequent drafts lacked the ban on slavery.
But in the 1780s an anti-slavery impulse was in the air. American revolutionaries had been stung by Samuel Johnson’s taunts: “How is it that we hear the loudest cries for freedom among Negro drivers?”
In 1780 the Pennsylvania legislature voted to abolish slavery, and Massachusetts passed a constitution largely drafted by John Adams, which his courts interpreted as abolishing slavery. New Hampshire courts followed suit, and Rhode Island and Connecticut legislatures voted to abolish slavery in 1784.
As historian Alan Taylor has pointed out, these laws—and those passed by New York and New Jersey in 1799 and 1804—provided for only partial and gradual emancipation. The Northwest Ordinance went much further.
Who was responsible? Historian Harlow Lindley, in a monograph prepared in 1937 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ordinance, assigns them to Ipswich, Mass., Minister Manasseh Cutler, lobbyist for a society of anti-slavery New Englanders willing to go to government Paying $3.5 million for a huge land grant north of the Ohio River. Cutler spent days in New York during the crucial weeks of July 1787 cajoling congressmen and drafting amendments.
As the 250th anniversary of the ordinance approaches, the late historian David McCullough also credits Cutler with the ordinance in his 2019 book The Pioneers. The book goes on to tell how Cutler’s son, Ephraim Cutler, founded the first settlement in the Northwest Territory in Marietta, now a pretty New England town on the Ohio River.
Like any law, the Northwest Ordinance’s anti-slavery law was not self-enforcing. The southern portions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois attracted many settlers from Virginia and other slave states, and some attempted state legislation to legalize slavery north of the river.
Luckily they failed. McCullough tells how Ephraim Cutler, who was elected to the legislature, fought back attempts to legalize slavery. Kurt Leichtle and Bruce Carveth’s Crusade Against Slavery and Suzanne Cooper Guasco’s Confronting Slavery tell the extraordinary story of Edward Coles, a Virginia plantation heir who freed his slaves and bought them lands in the new state of Illinois.
Coles had been chief adviser to President James Madison, trying to persuade him to free his slaves; Madison, whose grandfather had been murdered by a slave, wasn’t interested. Coles was more effective in the northwest. He was elected governor of Illinois in 1822 and led the successful fight against a referendum to allow slavery in that state.
Coles lived long enough to campaign for Abraham Lincoln and see the 13th Amendment ratified in 1865. It’s hard to imagine how an opponent of slavery like Lincoln could have had a successful political career in an Illinois “fight against slavery” without the Northwest Ordinance and Coles.
White Southerners may have brought some slaves to the Northwest Territory states—the Dred Scott case arose out of a similar situation—but the ordinance clearly discouraged large slave owners from moving their operations there, as some did to the slave state of Missouri . And it provided fertile ground for abolitionists and terminuses of the Underground Railroad.
Politically, in the four-candidate presidential election of 1860, the states cut out of the Northwest Ordinance voted 53 percent for Abraham Lincoln, and with more than 50 percent in each state, he won all 62 of their electoral votes. The motivated workforce and growing industrial strength of the Midwest were essential to Union victory in the Civil War.
Americans have celebrated the anniversaries of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention, but it’s also fitting to celebrate this law, passed even while the Convention was working. So this Thanksgiving, take a moment to give thanks for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Michael Barone is senior policy analyst for the Washington Examiner.