The Constitutional provisions of the Northwest Ordinance, adopted July 13, 1787, under the first written Constitution, are of outstanding importance. They are well written and constitute a Bill of Rights for the Northwest Territory, although speech and press are not specifically enumerated. Most important is the specific prohibition of human slavery in the territory northwest of the Ohio River.

This Ordinance figured in national politics and was always recognized by the Supreme Court as valid under the next, or new, Constitution. In fact, in the Dred Scott Case the provision against slavery was recognized, but the power of Congress to legislate over the territory included in the Louisiana Purchase was not (although the Constitution always gave Congress the specific power to govern territorial lands).

Selections from the Ordinance follow:

ORDINANCE OF 1787, JULY 13, 1787


Section 1. Be it ordained by the United States in Congress assembled, That the said Territory, for the purpose of temporary government, be on district, subject, however, to be divided into two districts, as future circumstances may, in the opinion of Congress, make it expedient.

Sections 2 to 12, inclusive, cover the detail of governmental set-up. This part was competently done, excellent in both draftsmanship and statesmanship.

Section 13. And for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions, are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments, which forever hereafter shall be formed in the said territory; to provide, also, for the establishment of States, and permanent government therein, and for their admission to a share in the Federal councils on an equal footing with the original States, at as early periods as may be consistent with the general interest:

Section 14. It is hereby ordained and declared, by the authority aforesaid, that the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact, that the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact, between the original States and the people and States in the said territory, and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent, to wit:


No person demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship, or religious sentiments, in the said territory.


The inhabitants of the said territory shall always be entitled to the benefits of the writs of habeas corpus, and of the trial by jury; of a proportionate representation of the people in the legislature, and of judicial proceedings according to the course of the common law. All persons shall be bailable, unless for capital offences, where the proof shall be evident, or the presumption great. All fines shall be moderate; and no cruel or unusual punishment shall be inflicted. No man shall be deprived of his liberty or property, but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land, and should the public exigencies make it necessary, for the common preservation, to take any person's property, or to demand his particular services, full compensation shall be made for the same. And, in the just preservation of rights and property, it is understood and declared, that no law ought ever to be made or have force in the said territory, that shall, in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts, bona fide, and without fraud previously formed.


Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. . . .

That Congress then recognized the necessity of federal control of waterways is shown in Article IV. Particular reference is made to the Mississippi and its tributaries.

When one remembers that in the Europe of that day rivers were still parceled out among owners of private property for toll-collection purposes, the long-range and progressive aspects of this act become clear. In fact, recognition of the need for federal control of waterways for commercial purposes is but one step removed from the recognition of a similar need with respect to all natural resources to ensure their proper conservation and utilization for the general welfare of the people.


. . . The legislatures of those districts, or new States, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil by the United States in Congress assembled, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona-fide purchasers. . . . The navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and Saint Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways, and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of the said territory as to the citizens of the United States, and those of any other States that may be admitted into the confederacy, without any tax, impost, or duty therefor.


(Creation of States)


There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof, the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided always, That any persons 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, and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid, That the resolutions of the 23d of April, 1784, relative to the subject of this ordinance, be, and the same are hereby, repealed, and declared null and void.

Done by the United States, in Congress assembled, the 13th day of July, in the year of our Lord 1787, and of their sovereignty and independence the twelfth [Journals of Congress (ed. 1823), IV, pp. 752-54.]

The last prohibition of slavery is an important indication of the times. The Article was unanimously carried by the state delegations. Only one delegate (from New York) voted against it. Thus it will be noted that every individual Southern delegates voted for the exclusion of slavery from these territories forever.

Slavery was almost universally condemned, primarily because it had begun to become unprofitable. But in 1796 Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Slavery became highly profitable. Enormous fortunes were built up.

The did the ruling class of the South find that God had ordained slavery.