Write Team: The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

A lot of people slept in high school. Or the teacher just didn’t teach a lot of useful history.

But the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is a HUGELY IMPORTANT bit of historical scrip. It’s not-so-boring in 2022. And in a way, it proves to me powdered wigs for men should make a comeback.

Here’s the scene. The Revolutionary War ended in 1783. The Northwest Ordinance was passed just four years after that, and just before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

The Northwest Ordinance was a federal enactment outlining just how our country would develop its new lands in the Midwest. People had already begun heading west through the Ohio Valley. At the time the ordinance passed, this was just open, newly-American territory. Seven states would eventually be formed from the Northwest Territory — Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

It’s a great affirmation of the small-d democratic, antislavery views of young America.

The Northwest Ordinance struck two big blows against slavery right from our country’s start. First, it banned slavery from ever taking place in a huge part of America — all the American states to be formed north of the Ohio River.

Second, it instituted a ban on slave importation that would begin in 1808. No more slaves could be brought into America from Africa after this time. Remember: Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence spoke of King George III’s slave trade as being one of the reasons America should break away from England. The Northwest Ordinance was proof of this American resolve.

These were two hard punches against slavery.

Radical in concept, the Northwest Ordinance also was ahead of its time when it came to property rights — helping establish in American law the idea of fee simple ownership of land. To wit, once you bought it, it’s yours forever. It also promoted the idea of using monies received from the sale of federal land to go toward establishing public universities. Public education was in the national interest.

And parts of the Northwest Ordinance presaged our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. The Northwest Ordinance outright listed such American values as freedom of religion, the value of education and democratic due process rights.

The State of Illinois was shaped from Northwest Territory territory in 1818. Our first state constitution included this provision in Article 6: “Neither slavery or involuntary servitude shall hereafter be introduced into this state.”

Because of this, Illinois started life as a free state. Interestingly enough, many other states wrote antislavery provisions in their constitutions when they were formed after the Revolutionary War — often forcing emancipation of slaves upon the death of their owner.

Hope this isn’t boring. The Northwest Ordinance bears upon us today. Hey, are teachers teaching us the basics — the salt and pepper, the meat and potatoes, of American history? Yeah, I know some of this stuff can sound boring, but the details are in the boring, and they’re vital for everyone to know.

I’m apprehensive there are lots of our fellow citizens who don’t realize how fantastic our natural rights as individual citizens are. And who don’t even know what the Bill of Rights really is. Or know our proud history of individual liberty.

How can you defend your personal freedoms if you don’t even know what they are?

Pro tip: Google the “Bill of Rights.”

I’m a huge fan of free speech. I think open, free discussion of ideas is one of the things that makes us fully human, makes us grown up, responsible adults. Our ideas are part of what we are, and we only get well-seasoned, well-figured ideas from encountering many, many ideas. Free speech is an enormous human good ... even if you and I don’t agree with the content, you should deeply agree we benefit from living in a world of full and frank, genuine talk between people.

  • Todd Volker lives in Ottawa with his wife and son, and they enjoy reading, kayaking, hiking, tennis and camping. He’s a lifelong learner with books in his hands.