The Forefathers Look at the Future of Slavery in the new USA (1783-1787)A.C. McLaughlin tells us that during the early days of the Revolution, when it was often uncertain whether independence could be maintained; when British armies were occupying much of American territory; when Washington had not the troops, food, or the equipment to beat the enemy back; there was much discussion concerning the ownership of the land beyond the mountains. Between the states themselves this was a topic for prolonged dispute.
The parties to this internal controversy were on the one hand Congress, on the other hand, the 7 states — New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, & Georgia — which laid claim to parts of this western country. The other 6 states asserted either that Congress already had rightful authority or that Congress should be given it for the public good.
Fearing the strength & influence of the states which claimed the vast territory beyond the mountains, Maryland at an early day proposed that Congress should have the right to "fix the western boundary of such states as claim to the Mississippi or south sea; & lay out the land beyond the boundary so ascertained into separate & independent states from time to time as the numbers & circumstances of the people thereof may require."
Maryland refused to agree to the Articles of Confederation so long as other states asserted their claims to the wide region beyond the mountains. Congress passed a resolution declaring that the lands ceded or relinquished to the United States by any state should be disposed of for the common benefit of the all of the United States & be settled & formed into distinct republican states which should become "members of the federal union, & have the same rights of sovereignty, freedom, & independence, as the other states."
The Confederation was to have title to an imperial domain beyond the mountains. The principle had won acceptance that the settlers in the west should not be held permanently in colonial subjection to the mother-states of the seaboard, but should be formed into self-governing commonwealths.
With the exception of the Western Reserve, Congress had, therefore, by 1786, full title to all the land north of the Ohio. South of the Ohio the seaboard states, basing their claims on their old charters, still asserted ownership westward as far as the Mississippi.
Congress now claimed ownership of many millions of acres, & this ownership constituted a common interest. It remained for Congress to work out a plan of settlement & to carry out the principles which it had already announced.
Action was taken in March 1784, when by Virginia's cession Congress held unquestioned title to a large portion of the lands north of the Ohio. An ordinance proposed by Jefferson was brought before Congress: the western lands "ceded or to be ceded" were by this plan to be divided into 14 states.
By this plan the settlers were not immediately to form a state & enter the Union, they were, "either on their own petition or on the order of Congress," to meet together for the purpose of establishing "a temporary government," & when any state had 20,000 free inhabitants it was to receive from Congress authority to establish a permanent constitution & government.
Not until a state should have as many free inhabitants as should be at the time contained in "the least numerous of the 13 original States" was it to have the right to be admitted into the Union. Thus by the spring of 1784, there were two essential ideas of the American colonial system: temporary government with a large measure of self-government for the colony; & the ultimate admission of the colony into the Union on terms of equality with the older members.
In Jefferson's plan, as first introduced, it was declared that in all this western country "after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude...otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty." The restriction was evidently intended to cover not only the territory north of the Ohio but the territory south as well.
The southern states, however, from whose older portions people were already moving into the interior beyond the mountains, were not ready to dedicate the west to freedom. When the Ordinance was under discussion a delegate from North Carolina moved to strike out the antislavery clause.
The Ordinance was passed April 23, 1784. It never went into effect, but it it is significant as one of the early attempts to organize the west, & perhaps still more because of the effort to exclude slavery.
The Ohio Company made up of New England men, was formed in Boston, on March 3, 1786. Its directors were General Rufus Putnam, who had served in the Revolution, General Samuel H. Parsons, also a Revolutionary officer, & lastly Manasseh Cutler, a doctor of divinity, who, with a penchant for botany & a love for natural philosophy, had also an aptitude for business. The New Englanders were already moving into the "northern frozen deserts," Cutler said, & to turn their faces to the new west it was necessary only to tell them of the temperate climate & fertile land of the Ohio country.
The most famous, though possibly not the most important clause of the Ordinance, was one excluding slavery: "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." Provision was made, however, for the reclamation & return of any person escaping into the territory from whom labor or service was "lawfully claimed in any one of the original states."
The Ordinance prevented the introduction of slavery in the early years when settlers were moving into the region, it assured the development of the northwestern states free from the slavery debate, & it stated a principle & established a precedent. There was value, too, in proclaiming the fundamental principles of civil liberty & sound maxims concerning education & religion. By the passage of the Ordinance, Congress fulfilled its earlier promise, that, if the western lands were ceded, free republican states would be formed.
Source: The American Nation: A History v. 10. The Confederation & the Constitution, 1783-1789, by A.C. McLaughlin, available at the Internet Archives.