Three decades later, when Michigan was preparing for statehood,
Congress reaffirmed what had been decided in 1802 – that the
Northwest Ordinance was nothing more than an act of Congress. To
admit Michigan as a state, Congress had to confirm the boundaries of
the part of the Michigan Territory that would become the state of
Michigan, and establish the remainder as a new territory. The new ter-
ritory being formed, which would eventually become the western
state in the northern part of the Northwest Territory, was the
Wisconsin Territory. According to the ordinance, the southern
boundary of Wisconsin, like the southern boundary of Michigan, was
to be even with the southern end of Lake Michigan. Congress, how-
ever, had already altered this boundary when admitting Illinois, the
state directly to the south of Wisconsin. In order to give Illinois a fair
share of the shoreline of Lake Michigan, its northern boundary had
been placed farther north than the line in the ordinance.
In 1835, Congress had to settle the boundary dispute between
Michigan and Ohio, and define the boundaries of the Wisconsin
Territory. This resulted in the final debate over Congress’s authority
to disregard the Northwest Ordinance. Michigan, of course, wanted
the land claimed by Ohio in 1802, which, according to Article V of the
Northwest Ordinance, belonged to them. Michigan claimed that the
ordinance was a compact that could not be broken by Congress, and
the few members of Congress who sided with Michigan, particularly
John Quincy Adams, unsuccessfully tried to use this argument. Those
who sided with Ohio argued that Congress had decided three decades
earlier that it did not have to adhere to the ordinance, and, in addi-
tion to that, giving in to Michigan would cause another problem. The
Wisconsin Territory, when it later applied for statehood, might
demand that the northern boundary of Illinois, which had been
moved even farther north than the disputed Ohio boundary, also be
moved back to the line specified in the ordinance.
John Reynolds, a Representative of Illinois, made the following
comments regarding his state’s constitution and northern boundary.
...This constitution has been made in pursuance of an act of
Congress, passed in 1818, authorizing the people of the
Territory of Illinois to form a constitution and State
Government, and which State, so formed, was admitted into
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the Union with the limits as prescribed in the constitution.
This course of proceeding showed the sense of Congress
on the ordinance of 1787, made for the government of the
people of the Northwestern Territory. Congress, as early as
1802, expressed an opinion on this ordinance in the admis-
sion of the State of Ohio into the Union. They considered the
ordinance then, and they have so considered it ever since,
down to a very recent date, as changeable by their legisla-
tion. It is, in fact, nothing more than an ordinary act of
Congress, changeable, like other acts, for the public good.35
After noting that the ordinance actually said only that the north-
ern states were to be formed north of the specified line, not that their
southern boundaries had to be on that line, Reynolds continued.
...But we are not compelled to resort to this rigid construc-
tion of the ordinance, which was peculiarly made, not to reg-
ulate boundaries of new and future States, but for the gov-
ernment of the people in the Northwestern Territory. It can be
demonstrated, according to the principles of our constitution
and the laws of the country, that the ordinance is nothing
more than an act of Congress. Its assuming to itself the high-
sounding titles of “ordinance,” and “compact,” does not
make it so. It is not contended that the Congress that passed
this act in question possessed any more power or authority
under the Constitution of the United States than the present
or any other Congress possess. Each Congress that existed
under the same constitution of Government must possess
the same power, and no more. Could the present Congress
make a compact between any people in this Government? It
is useless to inform this House what a contract or compact
is. There must be competent parties, in the first place. Who
were the parties in this “compact” mentioned in the ordi-
nance? Congress were the only party concerned in the
whole transaction. It is clearly not a compact, as there were
no parties to it. The people in the new Territory were not
THE NORTHWEST ORDINANCE
35. Register of Debates in Congress, vol. 11, 23rd Cong., 2nd Sess., (Washington D.C.: Gales
and Seaton, 1835), 1252.
present, represented in the Congress that enacted this organ-
ic law of the Northwestern Territory.
The Congress of the United States have no power to make
constitutions for any people. They may make organic laws for
the Territories of the United States, and no more. These laws
are always in the control and power of Congress, to alter and
change at pleasure, which they have done on various occa-
sions. They are completely within the constitutional compe-
tency of Congress, to change and alter whenever the public
good requires it. Congress have so considered the subject
since this act or ordinance had existed. They admitted the
State of Ohio into the Union with an alteration of the ordinance
act. The same has been done with Indiana and Illinois. It has
been the uniform course of legislation, when it became nec-
essary, since the ordinance was enacted in 1787...
John Quincy Adams, after reading the part of the ordinance stat-
ing that it was an unalterable compact between the original states and
the people of the territory, and reading the boundaries specified in
Article V of the ordinance, made the following comments.
These are the terms of the compact—a compact as binding
as any that was ever ratified by God in heaven.
The further provision is for the admission of these States into
the Union at the proper time. I pass that over because it has
no reference to the question now at issue before the House.
I pass over, also, the laws which have been enacted by
Congress from that time to the present; and the question
whether Congress has, by its subsequent acts, violated this
provision. I appeal to it now, in order to say that it cannot be
annulled; that it is as firm as the world, immutable as eternal
justice; and I call upon every member of this House to
defend it with his voice and vote, and to sustain the plighted
faith of this nation—of the thirteen original States by which
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36. Register of Debates in Congress, vol. 11, 23rd Cong., 2nd Sess., (Washington D.C.: Gales
and Seaton, 1835), 1253-1254.
the compact was made.
In the year 1805, the Territory of Michigan was formed by
law, and the Southern line of the Territory is identical with
these words of the provision: “an east and west line drawn
through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.”
And what do these twenty-nine members ask Congress to
do? They call upon you to repeal this provision; to declare
that it is not binding; to say that this shall not be the line, and
to establish a different one. And why? Because it suits their
convenience, and the convenience of their States, that the
line should be altered....37
Adams then asserted that the earlier Congresses had deviated from
the ordinance because they didn’t understand what they were doing.
...It is true that the boundary of Indiana and Illinois has been
formed by Congress, without knowing, as I believe, what
they were doing, or what principles were involved; and if this
question does not come to the arbitrament of the sword, as
has been intimated by the member from Illinois, who says
that the people of Illinois will not suffer their boundary line to
be touched—all I ask, and all the people of the two
Territories ask, is, that you will not touch the line at all—that
Congress will no more commit itself. There is no necessity
for it. If they have committed an error in establishing a new
boundary, drawn from a Territory which has no one to repre-
sent its interests, let them be satisfied with the evil they have
done, and not repeat it now, when they know what is
involved in the question.
Thomas Hamer of Ohio responded to Adams with the following.
...Now sir, can Congress pass a law that cannot be repealed?
Can one Congress by a law bind their successors and the
THE NORTHWEST ORDINANCE
37. Register of Debates in Congress, vol. 11, 23rd Cong., 2nd Sess., (Washington D.C.: Gales
and Seaton, 1835), 1255-56.
38. ibid., 1256.
country through all time to come? Yet such is the doctrine
advanced in opposition to our claim. The ordinance is an act
of Congress. It is no compact, as to the country north of the
line named, whatever it may as to the rest. A compact
requires two parties to its execution. Here there was but one,
the Congress of the United States. Virginia had no claim; the
other States gave up theirs without reserve, and there was
no assent or dissent of the people residing in the Territory.
He could but admire what he might be permitted to call the
ingenuity of the gentleman from Massachusetts. He had
remarked that Congress had no power to change the line
prescribed in the ordinance, and that it was wholly unimpor-
tant what their subsequent legislation had been upon the
subject. Yet he carefully passes over the laws which conflict
with this line, and brings out those only which accord with it.
Thus, sir, he passes by the laws of 1816 and 1818, admitting
Indiana and Illinois into the Union, and fixing their bound-
aries north of this line; but presents the law of 1805, erecting
Michigan into a Territory, to show that Congress had regard-
ed the line as fixed, by their adoption of it on that occasion.
Why not bring out all, on both sides?...39
As in all prior debates on the subject, the prevailing opinion in
1835 was that Congress did not have to adhere to the ordinance. Ohio
kept the northern boundary it had claimed in 1802, and the bound-
aries of Indiana and Illinois were left where Congress placed them in
1816 and 1818. As a consolation prize, Michigan was given its upper
peninsula, an area it didn’t want in the first place.
In the act establishing the Territory of Wisconsin, and the later act
enabling Wisconsin to become a state, the Northwest Ordinance was
not even mentioned. Congress wrote a new act for the temporary gov-
ernment of Wisconsin. So, contrary to David Barton’s claim that the
ordinance was required for all new states, and was still being used
decades after the Northwest Territory states were admitted, it wasn’t
even used for all of the Northwest Territory states.
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39. Register of Debates in Congress, vol. 11, 23rd Cong., 2nd Sess., (Washington D.C.: Gales
and Seaton, 1835), 1258.
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