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Northwest Ordinance Ensured Liberty, Justice for All


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Imagine what Southern Ohio was like 225 years ago. All was wilderness in 1787. There were no cities or townships. The only villages were inhabited by American Indians.

On October 5, 1787, the Continental Congress of the United States appointed Arthur St. Clair the first governor of the Northwest Territory. His job was to implement the Northwest Ordinance, which had been adopted by Congress that July 13.

The ordinance established a system of government that made the territory north and west of the Ohio River the first commonwealth in the world to recognize liberty and justice for all.

In addition to prohibiting slavery, the Northwest Ordinance guaranteed religious freedom and civil rights throughout the territory. This federal mandate preceded by several years the Bill of Rights (the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution).

On April 7, 1788, within a year of the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance, 48 men traveling down the Ohio River on five boats landed at what would become the city of Marietta. About 70 Delaware Indians were camped there when the white settlers arrived.

Marietta was the first seat of the territorial government. Governor St. Clair arrived by riverboat on July 9, 1788, and he presided over a ceremony on July 15 that formally established the Northwest Territory.

Encompassing 265,878 square miles, the Northwest Territory included the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and part of Minnesota.

Governor St. Clair decided to move the seat of the territorial government to Losantiville, a town he renamed Cincinnati on January 4, 1790.

Governor St. Clair, who had been president of the Continental Congress and a brigadier general in the Revolutionary War, served as commander in chief of all U.S. troops and militiamen in the Northwest Territory.

An estimated 45,000 Indians lived in the Northwest Territory, and St. Clair was called upon by Congress to put down uprisings. On November 4, 1791, about 1,400 Army troops and militiamen were defeated by Miami Chief Little Turtle and an estimated 1,000 of his warriors at the Battle of the Wabash. It is considered the greatest military victory ever for American Indians.

About 900 of St. Clair's men were killed or wounded. "St. Clair's Defeat" was the subject of America's first congressional inquiry. He was exonerated and remained governor.

The first delegate of the Northwest Territory to the U.S. House of Representatives was William Henry Harrison of Hamilton County. He served from March 4, 1799, to May 14, 1800 (about 40 years before becoming the first Ohioan elected president of the United States).

Harrison was the son-in-law of John Cleves Symmes, a former New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress who was selected on February 19, 1788, as one of three federal judges to serve the Northwest Territory. Symmes Township in Hamilton County, which is part of what is now Ohio's Second Congressional District, is named for him.

Symmes was a partner in a company that was granted a patent by President George Washington to develop land between the Little Miami River and the Great Miami River -- an area encompassing more than 311,000 acres. Symmes and his partners paid about 67 cents an acre. Symmes sold some land to the developers of Cincinnati, which was founded December 28, 1788.

Harrison successfully promoted an act of Congress that allowed people of modest means to buy land in the Northwest Territory directly from the federal government. This contributed to rapid growth in Ohio's population.

The Northwest Ordinance established a process for new states to join the Union -- based on population -- and, in 1803, Ohio became the first state formed out of the Northwest Territory.

The Northwest Ordinance also established the township form of government in the territory, which continues to be favored by many communities in Ohio. I previously served as a trustee of Clermont County's Miami Township for 11 years, so I understand why many Ohioans prefer this local form of government as opposed to incorporating into a village or city.

Some residents believe township government is more responsive to their needs. Oddly enough, the only two things that Ohio law requires a township to do are maintain public roads and ensure burial of the dead.

Many Ohioans appreciate our state's history, including our heritage of liberty and justice for all. I hope you will join me in celebrating the 225th anniversary of the Northwest Ordinance, which resulted in the great state of Ohio.

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