by Gleaves Whitney
As his life neared its end, the genteel David McCullough gave a gift to the American people. To the book-reading public he presented a story about the Midwest that is a contradiction to our times. Without apology the Pulitzer Prize-winning author wanted to remind us why America is still—to recall Lincoln’s words—“the last best hope of Earth.” Despite our flawed past, despite the fact that previous generations honored some questionable individuals, our history did not unfold solely within the grid of racism. New England pioneers possessed high ideals of justly ordered freedom, and they carried those ideals west, and McCullough was on nothing less than a civilizational mission to make sure the rest of us knew it. There is evidence that he at least partly fulfilled his goal: The Pioneers had a significant reach, becoming the best-selling book about the American Midwest and one of the better-selling American histories in 2019 and 2020.
When he was in his mid-eighties, McCullough was asked in so many words about his civilizational mission. He observed: “I see now that all of my books are about Americans who set out to accomplish something worthy, something that they knew would be difficult—something even more difficult than they expected—who did not give up, who learned from their mistakes, who eventually achieved their purpose … to our benefit. One of the reasons we ought to read and know history is to increase our capacity for gratitude for those who went before us, for what they did for us, for what they achieved for us. For us to take them for granted is rude in the extreme.”
In The Pioneers McCullough never loses sight of the flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings who populate his pages. They are a lot more interesting than marble statues. But rather than dismiss these early New Englanders for not living up to our values today, he foregrounds the virtues the settlers did show—their courage, tenacity, and capacity to redeem suffering. Such virtues are never out of season. He alerts us to his purpose in the subtitle of his book: “The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West.”
Let’s focus for a moment on that word, “Heroic,” in the subtitle. Addressing why he wrote The Pioneers, McCullough emphasized that his moral purpose was to develop our empathy for the “other.” In this quest, he follows a long line of anti-Enlightenment writers from Vico to Herder who sought to cultivate Einfühlung, our sympathetic identification with those who are different from us. As the past is a foreign country, McCullough challenges us to “put ourselves in the place of those who went before us.” And then he wants us to ask, Who are we by comparison? Only partly in jest McCullough answers his own question by observing, “In working the last several years trying to understand what these pioneers who settled in Ohio had to contend with and what they accomplished against such adversities, I can’t help but feel that we’re a bunch of softies!”
Given the narcissism, self-indulgence, and decadence that McCullough believed poisoned our nation’s body politic, he urged us to learn from the Anglo-Americans who first legally settled the Ohio Country, even if they were quite “other.” They did not go West to become rich and famous, notes McCullough. “Out of their suffering came a sense of purpose… They weren’t in it for the money or to become famous or to have a lot of fancy possessions. No, they were there to establish a community and values that are of utmost importance for civilization.”
Today it is easy to forget the story of these pioneers, and unfortunately, we often do so out of benign neglect. In part, it’s because the locus of their story is Marietta, Ohio, in the region of the Midwest where the Rust Belt meets Appalachia. It’s flyover country, ground zero of the opioid epidemic. J. D. Vance well describes the region’s broken dreams in his Hillbilly Elegy. But in the 1780s this stretch of Ohio Country was a magnet of civilizational energy. Already in 1782, Crèvecoeur had exuberantly written that “The Ohio is the grand artery of that portion of America which lies beyond the mountains… I consider therefore the settlement of the country watered by this great river as one of the greatest enterprises ever presented to man.”
“One of the greatest enterprises ever presented to man” is no exaggeration, and it could have served as the title of McCullough’s book. His purpose was to direct much-needed light onto the relatively unknown Americans who uprooted themselves from New England and replanted themselves in Ohio Country in 1788 to live out the ideals of the new republic. Indeed, these pioneers undertook a kind of refounding of the American republic.
McCullough admits that he was not very familiar with the pioneers before beginning research on the book in the superb archive at Marietta College. Combing through its collection of source documents, McCullough discovered remarkable stories and was able to weave together the impressions and experiences of five men: Rev. Manasseh Cutler, the Congregational minister and polymath who led the Ohio Company of Associates; his son Ephraim Cutler, a jurist and political leader who fought to keep slavery out of the Northwest; Gen. Rufus Putnam, the Revolutionary War hero and military leader of the Ohio Company who also succeeded in keeping slavery out of Ohio; Joseph Butler, an architect and builder who wrote an important book about the early settlers in Ohio; and Samuel Prescott Hildreth, a physician, naturalist, and scholar who contributed his own works of history about Marietta’s early years. It’s as though McCullough took his marching orders from Ephraim Cutler who challenged posterity: “The character ought to be known of these bold pioneers…. whence did they spring?”
Now let’s zero in on the term, “American Ideal,” in the subtitle. For McCullough had another high purpose in writing The Pioneers. In addition to introducing readers to the men and women who transplanted Anglo-American civilization to the right bank of the Ohio River, he also wanted to highlight the ideals that informed the congressional laws that made their enterprise possible: the Northwest ordinances. Hardly ever taught today, the Northwest ordinances are among the greatest laws ever produced in the Anglophone world and they are the crown jewel of the Confederation Congress. They were the governing documents of the congressional lands that the U.S. had secured at the 1783 Treaty of Paris at the conclusion of our War for Independence with Great Britain. The acquisition of the Northwest doubled the size of the young United States. It encompassed the territory north of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes, west of the Appalachian Mountains, and east of the Mississippi River—the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and the stretch of Minnesota east of the Mississippi. Remarkably, the last of the three ordinances, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, was signed into law in New York City at the exact time when, down the road, the U.S. Constitution was being debated and crafted in Philadelphia. Thoughtful readers will understand that these two great documents complement each other and together express the founders’ best hopes for the New Republic. While the Constitution provided the blueprint for our republican form of government, the Northwest Ordinance argued for a certain type of culture that made a sustainable republic possible.
This is where McCullough’s book speaks to us today, in the telling of the founders’ hopes for America’s future. In 1786, eleven men met in the Bunch of Grapes Tavern in Boston to launch a dream. In “the room where it happened,” they drew up a proposal to develop the Ohio Country on republican principles. The subsequent Northwest Ordinance of 1787 became a kind of Urtext for what the new republic was to become. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams—they all influenced those who drafted the document. After the conclusion of the War for Independence in 1783, Washington for instance began writing letters proclaiming the Ohio Country was “the second promised land” that beckoned new generations of immigrants to our shores. The hope was for a kind of refounding of the American republic in the lands north of the Ohio, this time correcting the mistakes and perfecting the wisdom of past generations. It was, after all, to be a new republic.
Beckoning immigrants from afar, the new republic brimmed with optimism. But there were practical problems to be addressed. George Washington was beckoning immigrants to America when the Confederation Congress was debating how to accommodate the anticipated onrush. Out of these debates arose the three Northwest ordinances of the 1780s. In a historically unusual move, the lawmakers provided for future states to come into the Union not as subordinate colonies but on an equal constitutional footing with existing states.
Initially under the constitutional umbrella of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, advocates for three different republican visions—the agrarian republic of Thomas Jefferson, the commercial republic of Alexander Hamilton, and the virtuous republic of John Adams—vied in the free marketplace of ideas to shape the country north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi rivers. Yet all this idealism that the founders projected onto the Northwest is not to suggest that passage of the Ordinance of 1787 was devoid of politics; au contraire, supporters engaged in some fancy logrolling leading up to the July 13 passage of the document. Reputedly a number of delegates had to be bribed to vote for the measure. In the real world the founders inhabited, idealism often had to lean on sausage-making to come to fruition.
Idealism, nevertheless, retained its hold on the founding imagination. The Northwest was the founders’ field of dreams. In the great wedge of territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, these nation builders wanted a certain kind of republicanism to take root. Any one of the three competing visions of the new republic was in play—whether the agrarian republic of Jefferson, or the commercial republic of Hamilton, or the virtuous republic of Adams. In any given place, whatever the form of republicanism that took root, it could be close by other, competing forms of republican communities. Together these diverse republican communities would help create an overarching “Ordinance Society” that would demonstrate to the world the viability of American republicanism.
Significantly, this new Ordinance Society was to be built on four principles or cornerstones. First was the prohibition of slavery, a repudiation of race-based chattel slavery on American soil north of the Ohio. The Confederation Congress had to deal with the fact that slavery had been legal back East in the Thirteen Colonies, every one of them, including those in the North. Pennsylvania had only abolished slavery as recently as 1780, Massachusetts and New Hampshire only as recently as 1783, Connecticut only as recently as 1784. Thus, Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance, composed by Manasseh Cutler in 1787, was a revolutionary act for a large republic:
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….
No fools, Cutler and his compatriots felt strongly that the Northwest should not allow slavery. The idea was to mitigate the sectional tensions that had arisen over the peculiar institution; they did so by giving the emerging United States north of the Ohio River a blueprint for growth that would eventually lead the North to dominate the South in congressional representation and economic muscle. Some four decades later, Tocqueville confirmed Cutler’s vision when he famously commented on how the Ohio River separated the lively, enterprising North from the sluggish, slaveholding South. Significantly, the states north of the Ohio would mostly realize the dream of a free republic—a republic, in other words, that better lived up to the promises the Founders had made to the world in the Declaration of Independence.
Enforcement, alas, was spotty. There were lawbreakers who brought slaves from Kentucky north to Illinois and Wisconsin to work in the lead mines on a seasonal basis. Yet Article VI was not an entirely empty provision. In fact, there were free Blacks north of the Ohio River who could vote. McCullough tells us that in the 1802 election to send delegates to the Ohio state constitutional convention, a man named Kit Putnam cast his ballot, “the first vote cast by a free Black African in the Northwest Territory.”
McCullough does not say it outright, but the exclusion of slavery in the Northwest is one of the most powerful arguments against the recently launched “1619 Project,” which claims that the founders’ object in the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery and insure the conditions for its spread. The founders’ Article Six in the Northwest Ordinance, signed into law well before the Constitution was ratified, presents powerful evidence to the contrary. Their designs for the new republic aimed to correct some of the Founders’ most egregious errors by prohibiting slavery in the Northwest.
The second cornerstone of the new republic’s Ordinance Society, according to McCullough, was the Christian duty to respect Native Americans as fellow human beings. Article III expresses the moral imperative to deal with aboriginal peoples better than they had been treated in the past:
The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.
Already these two cornerstones of the new republic’s Ordinance Society should prick the American conscience, according to McCullough. For they challenge us to ponder an alternative to the race relations we have known. Just think if earlier generations of Americans had been able to embrace these two articles as our society became increasingly multicultural. Had we lived up to the ideals of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, there would have been an ongoing reckoning about the operational meaning of equality in a multiracial society. As a result, we might have avoided the extent of racial tensions we are experiencing today.
The third cornerstone of the new republic’s Ordinance Society, according to McCullough, was freedom of conscience and religion. The founders did not specify which religion—whether it be Protestant, Unitarian, Deist, Catholic, or Jewish—but they signaled their belief that the day-to-day regard for a higher power keeps us humble, and humility is important to a republican society and its culture. Belief can reinforce moral precepts and encourage citizens to consider the welfare of others in their calculations of self-interest. Article I reads:
No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.
The fourth cornerstone of the new republic’s Ordinance Society was education. The prerequisite to good citizenship in a self-governing republic has been, is, and forever will be education. The Marietta pioneers had learned that civilizational lesson growing up in New England, with its numerous schools and town halls. Thus, they intended schools to be at the literal and symbolic center of the New Republic. Each township that was laid out in accord with the Land Ordinance of 1785 would dedicate Section 16 to education. Section 16, the so-called school section at the center of the township, set aside acreage for locating a school building and/or for generating revenues from land and mineral sales to fund education.
These far-seeing pioneers also had a passion for higher education. From the beginning, Manasseh Cutler had insisted on establishing a college. It was of the utmost importance to introduce “the higher classics to the Northwest.” He wanted to call the territory’s first college “American University,” but the name eventually chosen was Ohio University, chartered in 1804. In 1828 the university’s first Black student, John Newton Templeton, earned his bachelor’s degree—the third Black man to graduate from a college in the U.S. So intrigued was McCullough by Ohio University’s history that a visit to the campus prompted him to write The Pioneers. The Northwest’s commitment to education would eventually result in one of the glories of American higher education—the Big Ten—which arguably includes America’s premier public university, the University of Michigan, established in 1817, as well as America’s first land-grant college, Michigan State University, established in 1855.
These last two cornerstones, concerning religion and education, were encapsulated in the most famous line of the Northwest Ordinance:
Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.
This sentence in Article 3 has had staying power, its spirit captured in the state constitutions of the Midwest. Michigan’s newest constitution (ratified in 1963) quotes the sentence verbatim. In truth, the Northwest Ordinance and its namesake territory comprise one of the most significant chapters in world republicanism. Who knew?
The Pioneers makes a powerful claim not just on the Midwestern but on the American and even the world’s imagination. McCullough’s achievement of weaving together the stories of these courageous settlers comprises one of the most remarkable chapters in our nation’s collective memory. And because the setting for the drama is Marietta, Ohio, it is also a particular point of pride for Midwesterners who are not used to the attention. Other regions of the country—the tragic South, Yankee New England, free-spirited West, Lone Star Texas—all have a well-honed historical identity that is recognized around the world. Not so much the Midwest. McCullough has helped Midwesterners find their voice in a crowded field. And find their voice they should with The Pioneers. The ideals that inspired the Northwest Ordinance, along with the heroic stories of the men and women whose sacrifice has been redeemed, offer a North Star to Americans in search of their better angels while seeking to form a more perfect Union.
 David McCullough, The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018).
 July 1, 2020 Amazon ranking at https://www.amazon.com/gp/bestsellers/digital-text/10704215011/ref=pd_zg_hrsr_digital-text. Also see the publisher’s information at https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Pioneers/David-McCullough/9781501168703.
 David McCullough, remarks at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, Washington, DC, August 31, 2019; recorded by C-SPAN at www.booktv.org. Author’s note: McCullough’s words are lightly edited for easier reading.
 McCullough, remarks at the Library of Congress National Book Festival, Washington, DC, August 31, 2019; recorded by C-SPAN at www.booktv.org.
 David McCullough, interview with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN Q&A, May 16, 2019, at https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4800487/qa-david-mccullough
 Crèvecoeur quoted in McCullough, Pioneers, p. 3.
 Ephraim Cutler quoted in McCullough, Pioneers, p. 2.
 Washington quoted in Gleaves Whitney, “The Upper Midwest as the Second Promised Land,” in Finding a New Midwestern History, eds. Jon K. Lauck, Gleaves Whitney, and Joseph Hogan (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2018), pp. 281-302.
 I use the term, “Ordinance Society,” as developed in Steven Keillor, Shaping Minnesota’s Identity: 150 Years of State History” (Minneapolis: Pogo Press, 2007).
 See the last article of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Article VI, at https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/northwest-ordinance.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Chapter 18, “Future Condition of Three Races,” Part 4, any edition.
 Details about the existence of slaves in the Northwest can be found in a number of archives throughout the Midwest. For the seasonal presence of slaves in the lead mines, see the archival collection at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
 McCullough, Pioneers, p. 143.
 See the text of Article III of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 at https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/northwest-ordinance.
 See the text of Article I of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 at https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/northwest-ordinance.
 McCullough, Pioneers, pp. 29, 146-47; also https://www.ohio.edu/student-affairs/students/history-traditions.
 See the text of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 at https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/northwest-ordinance.
 For the verbatim incorporation of Article III of the Northwest Ordinance in the Michigan Constitution of 1963, see Article VIII, Section 1, at https://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/mcl/pdf/mcl-chap1.pdf; compare with https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/northwest-ordinance.
Does your state constitution include any of the ideas or passages of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787?
What provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 do you regard as most important for the future of the United States?
How does the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 complement the Declaration of Independence?
How does the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 contrast with the U.S. Constitution that was being written in Philadelphia at the same time?
1 thought on “America’s Refounding in the Northwest, 1787: David McCullough’s Paean to Pioneers in the Ohio Country and Beyond”
This is an excellent article and should be read by every American who loves our country and knows that freedom isn’t free and that the desire for freedom is in every human born.