Editor’s note: This is the 10th in a series of essays leading up to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016.
Indiana became a state in 1816. Its political values, moral compass and physical boundaries were shaped by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The ordinance spelled out how new states would be added to the Union and the rights that would be guaranteed to citizens.
John J. Patrick, professor emeritus of education at Indiana University, calls the ordinance “a brilliant policy for governing a vast area north and west of the Ohio River — a liberal and innovative plan for colonial administration and national development.”
The document “is indisputably at the core of the American civic heritage, one of the most important political legacies we have,” Patrick said.
When the United States won the American Revolution, the 13 original states gained massive new lands stretching west to the Mississippi River and north to the Great Lakes. The Northwest Ordinance was one of several laws passed by the national Congress governing land division and westward migration.
It dealt specifically with the Old Northwest — the Midwest today — out of which “not less than three nor more than five States” were to be carved. The result? Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848).
The ordinance set forth a process by which territories would elect legislatures, write constitutions and apply to the national government for statehood. It guaranteed new states would enter the Union “on an equal footing with the original states” and specified their probable geographic borders.
The Ohio River became Indiana’s southern boundary. The northern perimeter was a moving target for decades. After Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803 and the Michigan Territory created in 1805, the boundary line was set at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. In 1816, the line was shifted 10 miles further north so Indiana could claim a bit of lakeshore.
The governance procedures set forth in the ordinance were as far-sighted as its commitment to individual dignity. Consider these enlightened promises:
Freedom of religion: “No person . . . shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments.”
Education: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Respect of Native Americans: “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; . . . in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed.”
Sad to say, the promises were not always kept. Throughout the Northwest Territory, federal treaties stripped Native Americans of their homeland, and slavery existed despite the written ban. The 1800 federal census recorded 135 slaves in the Indiana Territory and 163 free blacks. Regular funding for public schools did not occur until after the mid-19th century.
Patrick laments the typical high-school textbook contains less than a page on the Northwest Ordinance, calling it a seminal document in American history.
Many of its principles made their way into the Indiana Constitution of 1816. Though the ordinance was superseded by other laws, Hoosiers can take pride in its formative influence.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.