chaos in the west -- 12/3/14

In today's selection -- from Empire of Liberty by Gordon S. Wood. After the Revolutionary War, wealthy Americans used debt to buy up huge tracts of land, speculating and hoping to make new fortunes by selling that land to settlers migrating West. But these settlers did not cooperate, squatting on lands not owned by these speculators, most of whom went bankrupt. The result was a chaos that was solved with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Some scholars view this Ordinance, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as one of the three indispensable founding documents of the United States:

"Both the government and the [land] speculators misunderstood the settlers and the West. The speculators tended to borrow heavily, overextending themselves in the expectation of quicker returns from land sales than was possible. Because of Indian hostilities, there were never enough settlers willing to pay for land they could have for free. Congress tried sending troops to the Ohio Valley to burn the squatters' settlements, but the settlers simply rebuilt once the soldiers had left. To President Washington it soon became clear that 'anything short of a Chinese wall, or a line of troops' would not be enough to stop the swarming settlers. Not only did the settlers squat on land they did not own, but they moved irregularly, chaotically, and unevenly, jumping from place to place, leaving huge chunks of unsettled land behind them. They refused to live in organized communities, but instead roamed and rambled like the Indians whose treaty rights they continually violated. Their isolated and scattered settlements tended to make them vulnerable to Indian raids, which in turn incited white retaliation. These cycles of Indian-settler violence drenched the West in blood.

"Congress eventually realized that the kinds of respectable, law-abiding, and productive settlers it wanted would not be attracted to the West unless there was peace with the Indians and law and order in the territories. The original plans for colonial governments in the West expressed in the Ordinance of 1784 had left the settlers to govern themselves. But self-government in the West was no more orderly and no more free of self-interest than it was within the several states. Although Washington and other Eastern gentry often called these disorderly settlers 'adventurers' and 'banditti,' the settlers were actually not much different in character from all those common folk whose ambitions, self-interestedness, and democratic excesses had caused problems in the state legislatures in the 1780s.

"Just as gentry up and down the continent sought in the Constitution of 1787 a remedy for localist democratic excesses in the states, so too did gentry in the Congress seek some sort of solution for the localist democratic excesses in the West. As Richard Henry Lee, a Virginian much involved with congressional plans for the West, pointed out, something had to be done 'for the security of property' in the West because 'the greater part of those who go there' were 'uninformed and perhaps licentious people.'

"In 1787 the Confederation Congress concluded, first, that the number of states to be carved out of the Northwest would have to be reduced to not more than five but not fewer than three, which inevitably meant that each state would be larger than those Jefferson had proposed in 1784. But, more important, Congress realized that it would have to create what one congressman called 'a strong-toned government' to discipline the disorderly populace of the West. At the same time, it would have to provide for a gradual process by which settlements could grow into states. The result was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Border Settlers in Ohio Building a Log Cabin

"Apart from winning the War of Independence, this ordinance was the greatest accomplishment of the Confederation Congress. It created an entirely new notion of empire and at a stroke solved the problem of relating colonial dependencies to the central authority that Great Britain had been unable to solve in the 1760s and 1770s.

"When the monarchies of early modern Europe claimed new dominions by conquest or colonization, they inevitably considered their new provincial additions as permanently peripheral and inferior to the metropolitan center of the realm. But the Northwest Ordinance, which became the model for the development of much of the Southwest, promised an end to such permanent second-class colonies. It guaranteed to the settlers basic legal and political rights and set forth the unprecedented principle that new states of the American empire settled in the West would enter the Union 'on an equal footing with the original States, in all respects whatsoever.' Settlers could leave the older states with the assurances that they were not losing their political liberties and that they would be allowed eventually to form new republics as sovereign and independent as the other older states of the Union. With such a principle there was presumably no limit to the westward expansion of the empire of the United States. ...

"These new Western settlements, the congressional leaders believed, would have to be prepared for eventual statehood in stages. In the initial stage of settlement each of the territories was to be governed dictatorially by a federally appointed governor, a secretary, and three judges. Only when the population of the territory reached five thousand a representative assembly with a very restricted suffrage would be permitted. Even then the governor was given an absolute veto over legislation and could pro-rogue or dissolve the assembly at will. Only when a territory attained a population of sixty thousand could it be admitted to statehood.

"Despite its progressive promises, the Northwest Ordinance was actually quite reactionary and anti-populist. Its proposal for garrison governments with authoritarian leadership for the new Western colonies resembled nothing so much as those failed seventeenth-century English efforts at establishing military governments over the obstreperous colonists. The ordinance was in fact an indication of just how much of a problem democracy had become in the 1780s and how fearful Eastern leaders had become of the unruly Westerners."


Gordon S. Wood


Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815 (Oxford History of the United States)


Oxford University Press, USA


Copyright 2009 by Oxford University Press


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