Growing America

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The Northwest Territory included the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and a part of Minnesota.

On September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of the United States and Great Britain formally ending the Revolutionary War.  The occasion brought the transformation of 13 colonies into the 13 United States.  The Treaty also gave the new United States new territory along the Great Lakes called the Northwest Territory.

This region would go on to become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and a part of Minnesota but not without difficult choices being made.  What to do with this land? Could an existing state make a claim for the land and make it a colony of that state? Would new territory be able to become a state or would such land become subordinate to the central U.S. government?

The answers came on July 13, 1787 when the Second Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance into law.  Likely the greatest accomplishment of pre-Constitutional America, the ordinance became the model for how new states joined the Union.

The first step to creating new states started in 1781 when existing states such as Virginia, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut began to cede back land they had claimed to the central U.S. government.  The Northwest Ordinance divided territories into townships of 6 square miles further subdivided into 36 sections of 640 acres each.  One of these sections was donated for the purpose of public education.  Once these territories reached 60,000 inhabitants, they could apply for statehood as full and equal members of the United States.

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The Northwest Territory

The ordinance is important because it shows the values of early America.  First, Congress made it clear that new territories were not going to become subordinate to other states.  For instance, Virginia was the largest landholder of early America but it could not claim a portion of Ohio for itself and proclaim Ohio a part of Virginia.  What if Virginia and Pennsylvania had a dispute over new land?  Would they go to war with each other? Thankfully for Americans the answer was no. Thus, America peacefully incorporation new territory without bloodshed, something not common in history.

The Northwest Ordinance placed a great deal of emphasis on education as well as religious freedom.  “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”  It goes on, “No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.”

The ordinance goes on to establish other principles that found their way into the still to be written Constitution and Bill of Rights.  Mainly, the individual rights to a jury trial, no cruel and unusual punishments, the right to enter into private contracts, the right to be compensated if the government took your land for a public purpose as well as habeas corpus (the right to review the legality of ones’ imprisonment or detention).

Most importantly, the ordinance banned slavery in the Northwest Territories.  Although the issue of admission of states as free or slave became a major issue for America through the Civil War, this ordinance made it clear that the institution of slavery was not going to be permitted to spread in the new United States with impunity.

A transcript of the Northwest Ordinance can be found below:

Northwest Ordinance

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