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‘Free Male Inhabitants’
Notes on the Northwest Ordinances of 1784 and 1787
Between 1783 and1791 many thousands of pioneers, some escaped slaves, former slaves freed after their time of service and veterans of the Revolutionary War from 1776-83, descended the Ohio and Cumberland watersheds into the Ohio Country, which was then called the Northwest Territory and would become Ohio, Indiana and Illinois by 1818, with Virginia still trying to hold onto Kentucky and even maintaining some claim to Ohio lands.
This territory would be won in two phases, by defeating the Pan-Indian alliance of Tecumseh in 1813 and then in the 1830s in the Black Hawk War. This would be free soil country, from which Sherman’s men, the men who won the American Civil War, would come to fight the descendants of the slave aristocracy that had pushed their forefather’s west into the teeth of the enemy, out of good land suffering no population pressure, but only free-labor pressure. In 1816, with the “Year Without a Summer” New Englanders would join the mass migration down the Ohio and seal the fate of the natives east of the Mississippi.
By way of predicting the War Between the States, the territory north of the Ohio, would not be ruled by the a manorial-based aristocracy and would follow a more yeoman-type of organization. For while the soldiers of the Southern states were largely disarmed and returned to servitude after the Revolution, the soldiers of the north were essentially permitted to maintain their arms and dispossess the Indians. Some southern men would expand the frontier in the Appalachians and Alabama Plain against the Cherokee and the Creek, but that is another, and later story.
This ordinance was similar to Thomas Jefferson’s 1784 ordinance, in which slavery was limited [not abolished, as falsely claimed in the linked article.] there was however, in both, an exclusion of race from the framework, focusing on “free males of full age” who could be of any race. The key differences were that the 1787 Ordinance charted a clear path to statehood and outlined real estate politics.
Below are some quotes from the 1787 Ordinance that might illuminate the social status of various types of Americans:
In regard to inherited shares of a deceased relative: “there shall in no case be a distinction between kindred of the whole and half blood;” [1]
French Canadian citizens, marooned by their British masters in Illinois, were permitted to maintain their own customs under American rule.
“As soon as there should be five thousand free male inhabitants…for every five hundred free male inhabitants there shall be one representative…”
This clause, repeated thrice, liberalized the age requirement, permitting able boys to inherit the duties of their father, such as Nathan Bedford Forest did at age 13.
Summation of articles intended to become state laws:
-1. Religious freedom
-2. The right to habeas corpus, barring of cruel and unusual punishment and that forced labor shall be compensated with “full” payment
-3. Schools to be encouraged and Indians, their lands and their property to be respected
-4. An extensive entry on tax laying and levying to cover national expenses for the common defense and good, with enough holes to sail a riverboat through
-5. That the territory be divided into not less than three and not more than five states, with geographic boundaries roughed out with reference to the various rivers and lakes, with “sixty thousand free inhabitants” permitting a territory to be admitted to the union as a state, without the inhabitants required to be male.
-6. “Slavery nor involuntary [meaning people could sell themselves] servitude” was banned except as “punishment for crimes,” with the stipulations that runaways from other states would be returned to their owners.
There was no mention of race whatsoever. Though the Ordinance provided numerous means by which a person might be enslaved and forced into service, men of all races were held equal before it, were able to own land and vote, and were much less susceptible to human trafficking as their countrymen back east, who were constantly beset by jailers checking for freedom papers. The population of Africa Americans was very slight in these territories, though I have found references to two such individuals. This ordinance, however, did carry the seeds of acrimony. For the construct of the nation demanded that the rights of a slave owner in another state to reclaim his property, and indeed to force others to reclaim that human for him, would fracture the nation in 70 years’ time.
The anti-slavery legislation, half-measure that it was, would be repealed by the Constitution of the United States of America, which was being crafted simultaneously with the North West Ordinances, which only limited slavery in terms of banning “imported persons” beginning in 1804.
Notes
-1. Mixed race people had full rights, as did Indians and people of other races. The term “white” is not used once in the 10 pages of text.

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