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The Northwest Ordinance: Constitutional Politics and the Theft of Native Land

The half dozen years between the Treaty of Peace (in 1783) and the seating of the first Congress under the Constitution (in 1789) form an interregnum of sorts, the United States being no longer a colonial domain and not yet a true republic. The policies undertaken during these years set the stage for much that happened during the next century, including a civil war that killed nearly a million citizens and a conflict between the Federal government and the indigenous peoples of the continent that, some would say, continues still. In July 1787, while the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the so-called Old Congress, meeting in New York, passed the Northwest Ordinance, defined in the United States Code as one of the four organic laws of the nation. Setting out a future vision of territorial expansion, the Ordinance would prove crucial as the geographical center of the country moved slowly westward.

The Constitution itself has been dissected by politicians, political scientists, and historians since the day in September 1787 when it was first sent to the states for ratification—yet the relationship between it and the Northwest Ordinance has received little comment, despite the fact that James Madison himself referred to relevant “conferences and inter-communications” that took place between the members of both Congress and Convention. This study examines in detail one aspect of that relationship, suggesting an intimate link between the two original sins of the nation: the enslavement of millions of African-American men, women, and children—and the theft of millions of acres of Native land.