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How the Northwest Ordinance Shaped Indiana

By Susan L. Firestone

"When I drew the [Northwest] Ordinance . . . I had no idea the states would agree to the sixth article, prohibiting slavery." Nathan Dane in a letter to Rufus King, July 16, 1787.

The Northwest Ordinance is one of the most important documents for the founding of these United States, especially Indiana.

After the Revolutionary War, the United States had a problem: How to govern and form states from the new territory north of the Ohio River and west of the Mississippi.  The previous 1784 and 1785 ordinances failed to address the problem.

In 1787, Dane and the Continental Congress drafted another ordinance. It passed July 13, 1787. The Northwest Ordinance became law before the U.S. Constitution became law.

The Ordinance gave the territory a republican form of government. It established a bicameral, or two-house, legislature and proportionate representation. It defined a common law court system.

Education was considered important, both for good government and mankind. The Ordinance encouraged building public schools, often on land reserved in each township by the 1785 Ordinance. Indiana incorporated this idea in its constitution.

The Ordinance spelled out many civil rights. States like Indiana incorporated these rights into their constitutions. People in Indiana could worship without state interference.

Those accused of crimes would have a jury of their peers. The accused could receive bail except for capital crimes. The convicted would suffer no cruel and unusual punishment nor pay excessive fines.

The government could only take property or services in an emergency. And only if the owner was justly paid.

The government could not interfere with contracts except in the case of fraud. People could freely buy and sell land.

This Northwest Ordinance contained “radical” ideas. With only a few exceptions, the Ordinance defined a system of inheritance still followed today. Women and men inherited property equally regardless of marital status.

Native Americans were to be treated with good faith.  Their property, rights and liberty undisturbed unless Congress declared war.

People should not be slaves was the idea in the sixth article. Indiana incorporated this article into its 1816 Constitution in Article XI, sec. 7. 

Slavery continued in the Northwest Territory, however. The territory’s first governor, Arthur St. Clair, owned and bought slaves while governing the territory. St. Clair believed the Ordinance allowed people who owned slaves before 1787 could continue to hold them in the territory.

The outlawing of slavery was challenged with petitions to Congress and in courts many times in the territory and the new states. The Dred Scott case in 1857 was one well known example.

Indiana courts heard several challenges to the slavery prohibition under Indiana’s 1816 Constitution. Lucas Decker fought in the Indiana courts to maintain his slaves and indentured servants into the 1820s.i Decker was a slave trader living in Knox County.

While Decker pursued his case, the Indiana Supreme Court heard Lasselle v State (1820) and In re Clark (1821). In these two decisions, the Court held that the 1816 Indiana Constitution clearly prohibited slavery and indentured servitude.ii

Other ideas from the Ordinance involved citizenship and statehood. Indiana citizens had the same rights as the citizens of the original 13 states. Taxes did not depend on the citizenship of the person being taxed.

New states formed from the territory entered the Union as equals to the original 13 states. The state of Indiana was equal to Virginia and New York.

The Northwest Ordinance was the template for governing other U.S. territories. The Southwest Ordinance of 1790, for example, incorporated its language. A previous Act of Congress omitted the provision against slavery.

While the Northwest Ordinance, as law, ended with Indiana’s statehood, parts of it remain alive today. It is in both the Indiana and U.S. Constitutions. The radical sixth article against slavery and servitude is the language in the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution and Art. I, sec. 37 of the Indiana Constitution.

Susan L. Firestone is a retired Fort Wayne attorney and a volunteer for the Indiana Bar Foundation’s We the People program.


i   Luke Decker and Slavery: His Cases with Bob and Anthony, 1817-1822, Merrily Pierce, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 85, Issue 1, March 1989, pp 31-49

ii   Slave Cases and the Indiana Supreme Court, Randall T. Shepard, Traces, Summer 2003 pp. 34-41.

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