Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

America’s Other Constitution: The Northwest Ordinance of 1787– A Birthday Appreciation

by Gleaves Whitney

Today, July 13, we celebrate the 236th anniversary of the enactment of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Remarkably, one group of America’s founders was crafting the Northwest Ordinance in New York City as another group was debating the Constitution in Philadelphia. When else in world history were two great state papers produced in the same nation, at the same time, by two independent bodies of delegates?

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is one of the world’s great state papers. Arguably the greatest achievement of the Confederation Congress, the document provided the blueprint for the growth of the new American republic and set the course for forming a more perfect union—most of all by excluding slavery from new territory. In the first half of the nineteenth century, that territory would be reconfigured into the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota east of the Mississippi River. 

Like the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was written “by committee,” but New Englanders Nathan Dane (who wrote the anti-slavery passage) and Rufus King (who argued for the republican principles in the document) were indispensable. Passages in the Northwest Ordinance (see the accompanying excerpts) would later be incorporated into a number of state constitutions. Its ideals continue to challenge us to be a better people. 

Gerald Ford studied the Northwest Ordinance at four points in his formal education. The first time was in his grade school instruction in Michigan geography and history; second was in high school civics and history; third was in a history class at the University of Michigan; and fourth was in a law course at Yale University. Ford knew some of the Ordinance’s passages by heart and occasionally referred to the document during his 25 years in Congress. The more Ford learned about the Northwest Ordinance, the more he appreciated not only the direct contributions of Dane and King, but also the indirect contributions that Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton made to its final form. Each of these founders held a different vision of the future of the American republic (agrarian, virtuous, commercial), and the Northwest Ordinance’s great gift was to give posterity the space to work it out.

If Americans remember any passage of the Northwest Ordinance nowadays, it is usually Article 3, part of which states: 

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” 

Article 3 sets the bar high. It challenges Americans to push their thinking beyond the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution and look at the role of religion, morality, and knowledge in a sustainable democratic republic such as our own.

For example, the Northwest Ordinance does not just recognize the right of each individual to pursue happiness, important as that is. Article 3 seeks much more. It dares us to think of the happiness of our community (“the happiness of mankind”). And that translates into service to others in our collective pursuit of the greater good. Ford’s career in military and public service lavishly illustrates.

Another example: The Ordinance does not just recognize the right to liberty to do what one wants, desirable as that may be. With the moral earnestness you would expect to come out of New England, Article 3 challenges Americans to use their freedom to choose right over wrong, good over evil, justice over injustice. We can only do so by embracing a moral tradition that has stood the test of time. Ford’s presidential museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan, amply highlights the virtues he studied, embraced, and mastered over the course of a lifetime.

Yet a further example: The Ordinance does not just think of Americans as passive consumers but as active, informed citizens. Article 3 challenges us to aspire to a life that is better than that of a clever ape. Ford believed that a self-governing people should develop their character and their vocation to realize their full potential. When each individual does what he or she can to improve, the entire community benefits.

These are American ideas and ideals at their best. But there is more. Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 captures the tension between the conservative and progressive elements in the American experience. To understand what I mean, consider the first words of the article. 

“Religion” in a free society is mostly conservative since it is handing down what many people believe is God’s Word. But it has a progressive element as each new generation adapts religious teaching to meet the needs of its time and even founds new denominations and experiments in living. The progress the Civil Rights movement made in the 1950s and 1960s is unthinkable absent the Christian and Jewish believers who took part in it.

Now consider the word “morality.” Morality is also mostly conservative, but it too has a progressive element as each new generation adapts inherited moral norms to the needs of its time. In U.S. history, the abolition of slavery and periodic temperance movements illustrate.

“Knowledge” in a free society is more of a balance between continuity and change than religion and morality are. The transmission of continuously relevant knowledge from the past is fundamental to a nation’s survival—we do not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. But we are question-asking creatures, so new inquiry inevitably pushes the boundaries of what we know. It is a never-ending quest. The anthropologist Loren Eiseley captured the quest in a masterful metaphor: “The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery.” Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provides a lens through which to view the tension between the conservative and progressive elements in the American experience. At the Ford, we work with schools to explore that tension. We believe in the importance of transmitting valuable knowledge from the past to the rising generation while also embracing the expansion of knowledge through research, exploration, and boundary-stretching. This push-pull of building upon existing knowledge while seeking new insights and discoveries is built into Article 3 and reflects an understanding of the dynamic tension between tradition and progress that continually reshapes American history.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In terms of ideas, ideals, and practical political arrangements, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 holds its own against the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights. So why is it the most neglected of America’s early state papers?
  2. Why did the founders concern themselves with “the happiness of mankind”?
  3. How might greater awareness and deeper study of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 improve the unhappy state of American civic life today?


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