The Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787 A Forgotten Reason for the Longevity of American Liberty

by Dan McDonald

There are relatively few nations that enjoy as much personal liberty as Americans have enjoyed in the past two hundred years. Will future Americans know as much personal liberty in the next two hundred years? Many of these liberties will likely be lost if we fail to identify why we have known so many liberties in our national history.

Two of the most important ingredients for the foundation of American personal liberty can be traced back to 1787. In 1787, delegates assembled to frame the Constitution. A lesser-known event may have contributed as much oir even more to the liberties we have known. In 1787, under the Articles of Confederation the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787 was enacted. The act was passed partly because there were boundary disputes between the states regarding territories west of the Appalachian Mountains. But, the way the act determined what was to be done with these territories helped create a vision of life that shaped American history for the next two hundred years. We will look at the making of this act, its provisions, and its lessons for our future.

The Northwest Territory was the region containing the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Many of the original states had charters claiming land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. But, for the most part this region had been disputed territory between France and the British, and then between the British and Americans. But, in 1783 it was recognized as American territory.

Some of the states wished to apply the claims of their charters to these new territories. An example of this was Connecticut. Its charter gave it a strip of land from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. New Yorkers were not too thrilled about a sliver of Connecticut on both sides of their state. Pennsylvania claimed the region. The decision was made that no present state would be given the territory, but that it would be opened to settlement and new states would be created from the territory.

The act provided for the surveying of the entire Northwest Territory. The territory would be laid out in townships. Most townships were six miles long and six miles wide. The typical township would be further divided into 36 one-square mile sections (640 acres). One section of each township was to be used for the building of a church, a school, and a town meeting hall. The other 35 sections would be opened to homesteading and become privately owned. Generally, most townships sought whenever possible to build roads along the section lines. That is why, when you drive in rural Illinois or Indiana, you will likely find a road every mile. These roads still mark out sectional boundaries.

These provisions had dramatic results. Each township controlled its own school, its own church, and was almost completely privately owned. They were a community where, especially in rural areas, most of those meeting to decide township government issues knew one another. When issues were determined they were determined by neighbors knowing one another.

Life in the Northwest Territory could be quite different from one township to another, but patterns quickly developed. Whoever settled a township established its church. So, in one township founded by English Methodists you had a Methodist Church, in another settled by German Catholics there was a Catholic Church, and in another settled by Norwegian Lutherans there was a Lutheran Churches. Every township had its own schools. These schools were distinct enough from one another that states soon began to try to “normalize” education throughout the state. There was no doubt about who decided issues of the township school, these schools were owned by the parents and residents of the township. It was recognized that each township was something of an integrated community revolving around church and school and the family homes of that township. Each township was to become something a local city-state. The Federalist movement that resulted in the Constitution was not merely interested in diffusing power between the federal government and the state governments but also between local communities, state and federal governments.

The township meeting was pure democracy. The township residents decided every township matter by a vote at the town hall. But, for the most part there were only a few items to be discussed since 35 out of 36 sections were privately owned, and everyone knew that the owner of a piece of ground was free to do with his domain as he pleased. Township meetings decided how to take care of specific recognized problems. A township meeting might decide what to do with the pothole that existed in that wet spot south of the cherry tree between the Granville and Harrison properties. Some would suggest that more potholes were actually taken care of by township meeting halls than federal studies costing millions (make that billions) of dollars. Sometimes sides resulted, but everybody knew that your neighbors were not going to leave their property and you still had to be neighbors when the latest township dispute was settled. Besides, in township politics today’s enemies were tomorrow’s allies, so you learned to respect your opponents. There were Democrats and Republicans, but that mostly just mattered in state and national politics. On the township level, everybody knew everybody and your politics were not so important.

Today, many Libertarians like to trust in state’s rights to obtain the goals of Libertarian liberties. But, for the township governments, the states were the enemies of community liberties. It was the state governments that forced small schools to be consolidated with other districts and then administered by state officials. It was the states’ that gradually usurped control of local roads and local government and moved it to the state legislature’s domain. Little by little local communities became unimportant.

The Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787 provided for personal liberty. Each local community basically controlled its own religious life, its own educational system, and the political matters of that local township. The vast majority of each township was privately owned, and everybody could do pretty much what they pleased on their own land.

Which do you think will most guarantee American personal liberties in the future? Will it be a constitution that can be interpreted in a way that contradicts what is written in the document? Or will recognition of personal property rights and localized government do more to ensure liberty? I am convinced that the Constitution will not save personal liberty. The Constitution will be set aside by new interpretations as state and federal governments seek to enlarge their authority. They will assure us that it is for our benefit, and as good patriots we will rally to the cause. We will be convinced that we are building on our constitutional liberties, even as we lose personal freedoms.

A far greater guarantee of personal liberty can be built along the lines of the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787. Local residents would largely determine the political decisions of a very small area where most people know one another as well as the issues needing resolved. Small groups of people would get together to build a system of education that they would want to provide for their own children. Worshippers would continue to build churches according to their convictions. People would own their own property and generally respect the rights of property owners to govern their domains as they see fit. I can see few other systems or political theories capable of building a more enduring legacy of personal liberty.

Today, we do not have large unpopulated or sparsely populated lands to settle. But, the same sort of vision is needed to build freedom for the days ahead. Small local communities (where most people know most other people in the community) must govern themselves. Parents need to take the responsibility to own and control the schools to which they send their children, or at least to own and control the decision to which competing school they will send their child. Local communities need to be able to decide how to deal with local problems without lobbying a capital one hundred or one thousand miles away.

One can build a society only by being a society. People actually working together build societies. Great Society plans of a centralized bureaucracy simply build systems of bureaucracy. Those who work to build a common life to be enjoyed in common with people they know are the real persons who create societies. They build something in which they have shared labor and ownership. One of the criticisms of Libertarianism is that it fails to build societies. But, in truth the sort of vision contained in the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787 was very close to a Libertarian vision. By placing the residents of small communities in control of their own communities, and by having the vast majority of a community privately owned they succeeded in building a society along Libertarian lines. They built a society by believing in local control. It was a society of free men owning their lands and dwelling in community with their neighbors with whom together they owned their communities.

The work that lies ahead for us is to build such a society for our. Our greatest enemy is the centralizing tendency that steals our communities from us. Why is American society dying? It is dying because societies are never built by central command. Society is built when free men associate with other free men in the building of a community, a school, a church, a local gathering. They then create traditions and memories valued because everyone held them as important. We cannot re-institute the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, but perhaps we can rekindle its vision for building communities.


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