Northwest Ordinance: Two men who blazed the path in self-governance, human rights, and higher education

Reverend Manasseh Cutler and General Rufus Putnam

The grand push to settle the Ohio Territory, stretching from the base of Ohio to the Mississippi and up to the top of the Great Lakes, came from a polymath pastor from Ipswich, Massachusetts who fought in the Revolution, and General Washington’s chief military engineer, Rufus Putnam.

While referred to as Reverend Manasseh Cutler, he brought advanced mental tools to his flock. In addition to his Divinity degree from Yale, he had completed medical and law degrees and his work in astronomy and botany excited Benjamin Franklin enough to schedule time to meet in Philadelphia. Cutler’s prime motivation: to ensure that the Massachusetts Regiment got a piece of the territory and an opportunity to explore it first hand.

He gathered Massachusetts veterans at Boston’s Bunch of Grapes Tavern in March 1786 to lay out his scheme and roles for each. (1) Five million acres of land would be open to settlement thanks to the Treaty of Paris (1783) negotiated by fellow Massachusetts resident and then-diplomat John Adams, a territory larger than France. Cutler knew that Congress would consider plans to explore, survey, and establish an organized government structure to open up this land west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Massachusetts’ veteran, General Rufus Putnam would lead the expedition into the Northwest Territory after Congress approved the plan and turned over 1.5 million acres to their group, the Ohio Company Associates. In 1776 Punam gained notoriety while in charge of the defenses of Dorchester Heights’ frozen ground overlooking Boston Harbor during the Revolution. His quick thinking resulted in the withdrawal of the British from Boston. Later he marked out most of Brooklyn’s fortifications and Washington named this self-educated man to be the chief engineer of his army. ( 2)

He had no formal schooling after his father’s death in his childhood, so his knowledge of engineering came from experience and borrowed books. Putnam expanded his reading prior to leaving for the Ohio Territory at age 49. Cutler wanted to join the first expedition, but had many details to resolve, including Indian treaties to finish, so sent his 18-year-old son, Jervis, a natural adventurer. Putnam left home the last day of December 1787. The journey over the Alleghenies took nearly a month in heavy snow, bitter cold, and later heavy rains. Great challenges awaited him and his crew of forty-eight men who would build the ships to carry them once over the mountains on the water, but crossed the Alleghenies on foot, leaving the sleds to carry equipment and supplies. Once inland the men worked to build a stockade-like structure to house 864 people, the first private fortification on the Ohio River. (3)

Five states carved out of the Northwest Territory- Library of Congress

Cutler knew George Washington was eager to find a means to parcel out the land, since he had promised land to men he’d recruited to fight for the Revolution. Washington also had a personal interest in the Ohio Company. (In the end it took twenty years to deliver on that promise.) Washington’s interest in the Ohio Territory stretched years earlier, when his older brother, Lawrence, had been an original investor prior to 1763, when the British prohibited settlers from moving west of the Alleghenies.

Lobbyist for Northwest Ordinance

By July 1787, Cutler had arrived in New York and began calling on Members of Congress and lined up his neighbor from Ipswich, Congressman Nathan Dane, to carry the bill through Congress. Cutler proved to be an excellent lobbyist, called an “agent” then, for the Northwest Territory proposal. He explained the plan to several members of Congress, then met with the key geographer of the United States, Thomas Hutchins, to discuss the best site for the initial settlement on the Ohio. Hutchins favored a site near the confluence of the Ohio and the Muskingum rivers, close to Fort Harmar with a small population of native people and great forests nearby to provide building materials. (3)

The final contract approved by the Continental Congress included a private real estate venture with the Scioto Company and totaled 5,000,000 acres for an investment of $3.5 million, all the funds to go to the Federal Treasury to help retire the national debt after the Revolution. Cutler’s Ohio Company Associates would draw a million and a half acres. This would be the largest contract in the history of Congress when it was approved July 27, 1787–four years after the Trreaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War. (4)

John Adams’s influence hovered over the ordinance, as much of the language read like the Massachusetts’ Constitution, written by Adams, and his concern with human rights sings throughout the document. Article I addresses freedom of religion, expressing tolerance. Article III 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.” (5)

Land within each township would be set aside for a school. The land-grant colleges started here, written into the basic framework of each state to stimulate the bandwidth for future discoveries, patents, and to build solutions to thorny problems faced by the settlers and their 21st century ancestors. Creative work in art, music and the development of educators to serve millions of children flow from this enlightened document.

Native Americans to receive “utmost good faith”

Native Americans were also considered in the contract, stating “utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent. . . they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars created the by Congress.” (6) No discussion took place concerning which land belonged to the Indians or whether since they pre-dated Colonists, Native Americans might have claim to all the land.

Many Native Americans in Ohio refused to acknowledge treaties signed after the Revolutionary War that ceded lands north of the Ohio inhabited by them to the United States in 1783. In a conflict sometimes known as the Northwest Indian War,  Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Little Turtle of the Miamis formed a confederation to stop white expropriation of the territory. After the Indian confederation had killed more than 800 soldiers in two battles – the worst defeats ever suffered by the U.S. at the hands of the Indians – President Washington assigned General Anthony Wayne to command of a new army, which eventually defeated the confederation and allowed European-Americans to continue settling the territory. (7)

Blueprint for Achieving Statehood

The Ordinance created a framework for the development and settlement of the region, which the weak Articles of Confederation could not enforce in a systematic way. In 1789, after creation of a federal government and its Constitution, the Ordinance began to manage and promote statehood through the federal government, rather than as an extension of existing states. Five states were carved out of the Territory: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota.

Provisions of governance in the territory: Once 5,000 free men of legal age to be living in an area, it could receive authority to elect representatives from their counties or townships to a territorial general assembly. When the number of representatives reached 25, then Congress would control the number and portion of representatives in a territory. Once 60,000 free men were living in a territory, it would be admitted into representation in the Continental Congress on an equal footing with the original thirteen states. While the population of free, male inhabitants of a territory was less than 5,000, there would be a limited form of government: a governor, a secretary, and three judges, all appointed by Congress. The governor—appointed for a three-year term and given a “freehold estate therein, in one thousand acres of land”—would be commander-in-chief of the militia, appoint magistrates and other civil officers, and help create and publish laws as they saw fit for their territory. The secretary—appointed for a four-year term and given a similar freehold estate as the governor but of five hundred acres—would be in charge of keeping and preserving the acts and laws passed by the territorial legislatures, keeping the public records of the district, and transmitting authentic copies of such acts and proceedings every six months to the secretary of the Continental Congress. Three judges—whose appointments would continue indefinitely “during good behaviour” and each given the same freehold as the secretary—would be in charge of helping the governor create and pass acts and laws and in making official court rulings. (8)

Key Tenent: Outlawing Slavery

Article VI states: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory” (9) the size of the new territory made it difficult to believe that slavery would be banned everywhere in the Ohio Territory, but neither tobacco or cotton could grow in this frigid climate. No legislative notes from the time indicate who specifically took responsibility for this statement. Cutler’s journal, which was very specific in most other areas, did not mention slavery, but his grandchildren believe it to be his work. Others surrounding him did not have his writing ability to craft language.

The language of the ordinance prohibits slavery, but also contained a clear fugitive slave clause as well.(10) Efforts in the 1820s by pro-slavery forces to legalize slavery in two of the states created from the Northwest Territory failed, but an “indentured servant” law allowed some slaveholders to bring slaves under that status; they could not be bought or sold.[Southern states voted for the law because they did not want to compete with the territory over tobacco as a commodity crop; it was so labor-intensive that it was grown profitably only with slave labor. Additionally, slave states’ political power would merely be equalized, as there were three more slave states than there were free states in 1790. (11)

Transportation–Free Navigable Water and Highways

18th century keelboat and flatboat traffic on the Ohio River. Library of Congress

Under Article 4: “The navigable waters leading to the Mississippi and St. Lawrence rivers and the carrying between these places shall be common highways and forever free to inhabitants, citizens, and those of other states. . .may be admitted without any tax, import or duty thereafter.” (12) Thus setting up a precedent for the free national highway system President Eisenhower built in the 1950s. Now as states struggle to fund infrastructure (with the deadlock in Congress) privately-funded road projects, instead of government funded, and toll roads are becoming common place.

The Northwest Ordinance blueprint county laid out state and county government as new territories were added to the nation, a system used all the way to the West Coast. The bold move that Manasseh Cutler recommended to fellow veterans at the Bunch of Grapes Tavern in 1786 grew into the contract that serves the nation to this day. He told his son, Ephraim, that he prepared the articles prohibiting slavery and included religion, morality and knowledge as the foundations of civic government because he was “acting for associates, friends, and neighbors, who would not embark in the enterprise, unless these principles were unalterably fixed.” (13)

U.S. postage stamp issued 150 years after the signing of the
Northwest Ordinance’s passage in Congress, honoring Manasseh Cutler and Rufas Putnam.

On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1937, the U.S. Post Office issued a three-cent stamp commemorating Manassah Cutler, prime author and agent for the Ordinance in Congress, and the leader of the expedition to establish the first settlement, Rufus Putnam. (14)

(1) David McCullough,The Pioneers, (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2019) p, 12

(2) Ibid, p. 37

(3) McCullough, p. 47

(4) McCullough, pp. 16-17.

(5) Ibid., p. 28.

(6)”Northwest Ordinance,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress, July 13, 1787. pp. 335-337, Retrieved May 30, 2019


(8) “Northwest Ordinance,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress, July 13, 1787. Retrieved May 30, 2019.

(9) McCullough, p.29-30

(10) Ibid, p. 31.


(12) McCullough, p. 28-30

(13) Ibid.

(14) “Northwest Ordinance,” Primary Documents in American History, Library of Congress, July 13, 1787. Retrieved May 30, 2019.

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