History of the courts

Articles on Wisconsin legal history

Thomas Jefferson and the Northwest Ordinance

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

The first important figure in Wisconsin's legal history was Thomas Jefferson. Among his many other achievements Jefferson, with the help of James Monroe, wrote the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which shaped the way Wisconsin grew to be a state.

After the American Revolution ended, many of the eastern states claimed large tracts of the west including the area that became Wisconsin. Jefferson feared the states would build new empires to replace the old British empire in America. He eventually persuaded the states to give up their claims and persuaded the Continental Congress to take charge of developing the west. At Jefferson's urging, in 1787 Congress created the Northwest Territory which contained Wisconsin and also the modern-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

Jefferson and Monroe prepared a plan of government for the Northwest Territory which was one of the finest expressions of Jefferson's democratic ideals. Unlike previous colonial powers in world history, the United States would not keep the Northwest Territory under its thumb forever but would prepare it for self-government.

Jefferson and Monroe devised a two-stage system of government for the northwest Territory. As the northwest grew, heavily settled areas would become states and the remainder would be divided into new territories. During the first stage of each territory's existence, a governor and judges appointed by Congress would run the territory.

During the second stage, some control would be turned over to the people who could elect their own Legislature. When the territory reached a population of 60,000 (the size of Delaware, the smallest state) and was prosperous enough to support itself, it would join the other states of the Union as an equal. When Wisconsin became a territory in 1836, it was already so heavily settled that Congress started at the second stage and allowed Wisconsin to have its own Legislature from the beginning.

Nathan Dane, the head of the congressional committee which prepared the 1787 Ordinance, made sure settlers in the territories would have full civil rights including freedom of religion and trial by jury. These guarantees were the very first federal bill of rights: they became law a full four years before the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution. Grateful Wisconsinites later named Dane County in honor of Congressman Dane.

When Congress passed the Ordinance it added a provision barring slavery in the Northwest Territory -- but it did so at the last minute, almost as an afterthought. This last minute act was momentous: it guaranteed Wisconsin would be a free state and would remain allied with the other northern states.

Would Wisconsin's history have been different if Congress had not done this? History does not give a clear answer. Wisconsin drew most of its early settlers from antislavery New England and New York and probably never would have adopted slavery in any case, but the Ordinance reinforced Wisconsinites' natural aversion to slavery. In its creation of a unique governmental system, its guarantees of fundamental rights and its prohibition of slavery, the Northwest Ordinance made an imprint on Wisconsin's culture and legal system which has lasted to this day.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

Back to articles on Wisconsin legal history