Northwest Ordinance (1787)

Author:Leonard W. Levy

Page 1829

This congressional enactment, which applied to the territory northwest of the Ohio River, was the most significant accomplishment of the United States under the ARTICLES OF CONFEDERATION. In effect the ordinance provided for self-government under constitutional law in the TERRITORIES, thus "solving" a colonial problem by avoiding it. The pattern for government, which subsequently was extended to other western territories, allowed for growth from a system of congressional government to statehood and admission to the Union "on an equal footing with the original States, in all respects whatever.?" As soon as a district reached a population of 5,000 males of voting age, each one possessing a fifty-acre freehold was entitled to vote for representatives to a general assembly. The assembly had authority to elect a delegate to Congress with the right to debate but not to vote. When the population reached 60,000, the territory could apply for admission as a state, on condition that it had a REPUBLICAN FORM OF GOVERNMENT and a state constitution. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin were formed out of the Northwest Territory; this ordinance established a model for territorial governance and the admission of other states in the American West.

The ordinance was the first federal document to contain a bill of rights. To extend "the fundamental principles of civil and RELIGIOUS LIBERTY, " Congress provided articles that were to have constitutional status, remaining "forever ? unalterable" except by common consent. These articles guaranteed that the inhabitants of a territory should always be entitled to the writ of HABEAS CORPUS, TRIAL BY JURY, representative government, and judicial proceedings "according to the course of the COMMON LAW " (in effect, a provision for DUE PROCESS OF LAW.) As an extra safeguard the articles encapsulated a provision from MAGNA CARTA by insuring that no person should be deprived of liberty or property "but by the judgment of his peers, or the LAW OF THE LAND." In addition, the articles protected the right to BAIL except in capital cases, enjoined that all fines should be "moderate," and prohibited CRUEL OR UNUSUAL PUNISHMENT. Another article that provided a federal precedent for a similar provision in the BILL OF RIGHTS of the Constitution of the United States dealt with EMINENT DOMAIN : no person's property could be taken except in a public exigency, when he must be fully...

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