Profiles in Liberty: The Northwest Ordinance

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By Dave Smith, Senior Contributor, USADC.


“And, for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions are erected… the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact…” – The Northwest Ordinance

With good reason, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are acclaimed as great documents of history, helping create what was intended to be a limited federal government and establishing without question that the new nation would be founded on the liberty of the individual.  Before either was adopted, however – in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and the newfound independence, during which time the new United States of America were governed by the Articles of Confederation – there was another document that established specific limits on governmental intrusion on the liberties of citizens:  The Northwest Ordinance.

Meeting in New York, the United States Congress faced a unique problem:  how to organize the territories located north of the Ohio River and surrounding the Great Lakes, and how to create new states as the country began what was considered even then to be an inevitable expansion westward.  As an answer, Congress passed in 1784 “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio”, commonly called The Northwest Ordinance. The legislation outlined setting up governorships, legislatures, and judges in the new area and ensured that new states formed in the area and admitted to the Union would be equal in stature to those states already members of the USA.

It is notable that before the details of government were established, the Ordinance’s first paragraph dealt with the protection of property rights.  Most interesting about the Ordinance is that it established its own sort of Bill of Rights for the territories from which the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin would develop, with the stated purpose of “extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty”.  Included in the Ordinance were six specific Articles, some of which would find nearly word-for-word replication years later in the federal Bill of Rights.

In a familiar vein, first mentioned was the protection of the free practice of religion, regardless of “mode of worship or religious sentiments.”  The Six Articles also protected the right of habeas corpus, trial by jury, and “proportionate representation” in territorial and any subsequent state government.  Included was a guarantee to a right of bail, “moderate” fines, and a prohibition against “cruel or unusual punishment”.  In a precedent that showed the importance the early patriots placed on “preservation of rights and property”, there was a prohibition against any law or act that would “in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements” unless fraud was involved, and it guaranteed that no property could be taken or services demanded without “full compensation”.

The document wasn’t perfect: while it did prohibit slavery in the territory, it also provided for returning of fugitive slaves from other areas back to their owners.  However, it did require that the “utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians”, providing that “their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent” and that “their property, rights, and liberty” were to be protected unless Congress had first made a declaration of war.

Passage of the Northwest Ordinance, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual and specific limits on government power, showed the seriousness with which the new nation’s leaders would treat issues of freedom and liberty, while underscoring the continuing duality of its application with regards to slavery.  It foreshadowed the Bill of Rights and the Constitution’s provisions for installation of new states, and it played a great role in the building of a new nation that was, as Abraham Lincoln eloquently put it, “conceived in liberty”.


Born in the same county as Davy Crockett in East Tennessee, Dave found his way to Texas where he works in the petrochemical industry. He’s written and spoken about politics on various media outlets including Fox, ABC, and Townhall. He is a graduate of Tennessee Tech with a degree in chemical engineering. Dave writes a popular feature at USDR called “Dave Smith Said That”. Follow Dave on Twitter: @semperlibertas.

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