What Did The Northwest Ordinance Mean For Southernmost Illinois?

We recently discussed how slavery was outlawed in the northwestern territories following the American Revolution — although slavery was still implemented in several ways via loopholes in the ordinance. But the document wasn’t just about slavery. It helped govern land ownership, the admission of new states over time, education in American territories that were not yet states, how to establish government, what rights territorial citizens held, and relations with Native Americans who still resided in the area.

One of the freedoms provided in this document was land ownership. Land owners had every right to buy or sell land at will. Once purchased, land was owned in perpetuity, i.e. forever. Technically, no one else could claim it as their own or take it away.

One of our friends, an anonymous history buff and academic scholar who works part-time for Nagel Rice LLP, said, that the Northwest Ordinance was of particular historical importance because of the rights it provided: “If you believe in the American Bill of Rights, then you might consider that it started with this ordinance. There were ‘natural rights’ provisions that provided for religious tolerance and other legal rights. It all started there.”

The document said because “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

Even habeas corpus was written into the ordinance, which basically meant that residents inside the northwestern territory had the right to due process. They could not be unlawfully detained, nor could they be subject to cruel or unusual punishment when found guilty of a crime. In addition, they held the right to a jury trial when allegations or charges were made.

Although the Northwestern Ordinance had a lot to say on a variety of subjects including slavery, the main purpose was to determine how new states would be established over time. The document placed a limitation on how many states could be established given the amount of land and population. Because of the huge area, the ordinance said that at least three states should eventually be established so long as the population of the area had reached 60,000 people — but that no more than five states should be established, and that the population in each state would still need to reach 60,000 people before admission into the union. 

Eventually, five states gained admission. First was Ohio in 1803. At this point the territory was renamed the Indiana Territory. Not long thereafter, the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin gained entry into the union. But a sixth state — Minnesota — eventually stole a piece of the remaining land.

The northwestern ordinance created a public domain, which means it could not be bought or sold by the federal government. It belonged to the people who lived there.

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