The Northwest Ordinance helped change the shape, not only of the United States, but also the Constitution that had yet to be passed.
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The Northwest Ordinance was passed by the Congress of the Confederation in 1787. It was later signed into law by President George Washington in 1789 after the newly formed Congress reaffirmed it after small alterations according to the Constitution.
The main reason for this was to lay boundaries to the Northwest Territory. It covered the area south of the Great Lakes, east of the Mississippi River, and north and west of the Ohio River. This was the first organized territory of the United States, and would be the model for future expansion.
Arguably one of the most important parts of this piece of legislature is the prohibition of slavery for the newly formed territory. Not only did it set boundaries for the new territory, but it divided the north from the south. Which, would ultimately help lead to the Civil War.
The language of the ordinance stated clearly that, “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory.” This gave a new freedom to the slaves that were in the territory. But, one strange piece of wording gave a strange level of support to slavery when it said, “That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed.” So, on one side it outlawed slavery for new territories for the United States, while permitting it in certain areas of the original States of the Union.
This division would certainly not rest until years later under the stewardship of President Abraham Lincoln. Yes, he oversaw the bloodiest war the United States would ever see, the Civil War, but because victory was won by the North, slaves would be freed. It gives a certain weight to Lincoln’s House Divided speech when he said:
“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.”
This newly found freedom for slaves helped shape the Natural Rights that we find talked about in the Constitution.
With special thanks to Constituting America and Heritage College, we will be taking part in their project: The U.S. Constitution: A Reader. It is a 90 day challenge to learn and dive deeper into understanding the Constitution.