The Northwest Ordinance is one of the great American Founding documents. Often it is considered as the single most important accomplishment under the Articles of Confederation.
The land north and west of the Ohio River became part of the United States by the Treaty of Peace in 1783. Virginia claimed possession of the territory under its colonial charter. Sparingly inhabited mostly by a number of Native American tribes, Virginia ceded the territory to Congress in 1781 and again in 1783. Congress rejected some of the provisions of the first cession, but formally accepted the revised cession on 1 March 1784. Although nothing in the Articles of Confederation specifically gave Congress the authority to administer territories, Congress of necessity passed several measures for the surveying, sale, and administration of the Old Northwest.
The Northwest Ordinance provided for the government of the territory. Congress was to appoint a territorial governor with a three-year term, a secretary of state with a four-year term, and a three-judge court with tenure for good behavior. Once the population of the territory reached 5,000, a territorial general assembly could be appointed consisting of a legislative council with five members with five-year terms and a house of representatives to be apportioned according to the number of free male inhabitants. Representatives were to have two-year terms. The Ordinance provided that “the governor, legislative Council, and house of representatives shall have authority to make laws in all cases for the good government of the district not repugnant to the principles and articles in this Ordinance,” provided that all bills passed by a majority of both the council and the assembly “be referred to the governor for his assent” The Ordinance contained an abbreviated bill of rights consisting of six articles that formed a compact between the original states and “the people and states in the said territory.” Between three and five states were to be created from the territory. Once a population of 60,000 was reached, that portion of the territory could apply for statehood on an equal basis with the original states. Inhabitants of the new state could write their own constitution that had to have a republican form of government.
The sixth article of the Ordinance prohibited slavery and indentured servitude in the territory. When Congress considered the Ordinance in July 1787, Massachusetts delegate Nathan Dane, the author of the Ordinance, removed article six because a majority of the states attending Congress were from the South. Southern delegates, however, encouraged Dane to restore the prohibition because Southerners did not want a competing slave economy north of the Ohio River. It was also expected that most immigrants to the territory would come from Northern States and thus would probably oppose slavery. Furthermore, by overtly prohibiting slavery north of the Ohio, Congress tacitly would be allowing slavery in the Southwest Territory. With freedom just across the Ohio River, a fugitive slave clause was added to the sixth article. The Articles of Confederation had an extradition clause aimed at runaway criminals but no fugitive slave clause. When the delegates to the Constitutional Convention then meeting in Philadelphia saw the fugitive slave clause in the Northwest Ordinance they without much debate inserted a similar clause into the draft Constitution. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 proved to be somewhat inconsequential in returning runaway slaves, but the much harsher Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was one of the important steps leading to the Civil War.
Some Southerners and some long-time residents of the Northwest Territory objected to the prohibition of slavery. Bartholomew Cardiveau expressed such concerns in a long letter to Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territory. The “obnoxious resolution” was said to be an ex post facto law that would illegally “deprive a considerable number of citizens of their property, acquired and enjoyed long before they were under the dominion of the United States.” Some proponents of the prohibition suggested that it would only prohibit “the future importation of slaves into the Federal country; that it was not meant to affect the rights of the ancient inhabitants.” Promises were allegedly made that a clause would be inserted in a re-enacted Ordinance in 1789 “explanatory of its real meaning, sufficient to ease the apprehensions of the people, but it was not done.” Consequently, slave owners in the Northwest Territory, particularly Spanish-speaking residents, swore allegiance to Spain; some even moved west of the Mississippi River taking their slaves with them. If the complete prohibition of slavery persisted, “the Western country, will infallibly remain for a long time in a state of infancy.” Cardiveau also suggested that allowing slavery to exist in the Northwest Territory would provide a place to which freedmen could be transported “without violating the right of property, and without endangering the safety, peace and manners of the whites by a promiscuous intermixture of so many blacks turned loose upon society, destitute of industry, and uncontrolled by the principles of morality, or the habits of good society.” Cardiveau hoped that a “gentler annihilation of servitude might be introduced in the United States” (Bartholomew Cardiveau to Arthur St. Clair, Danville, Kentucky, 30 June 1789, William B. Smith, ed., The St. Clair Papers . . . (2 vols., Cincinnati, Ohio, 1882), II, 117–19, 119n–20n.)
Although the prohibition of slavery was never changed, various subterfuges were used that, in essence, allowed slavery to exist in the territory. When the five states came into the Union (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin), all of their constitutions prohibited slavery.