Free State, Slave State and the Northwest Ordinance

This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Slaves picking cottonAs the United States expanded beyond the original 13 states clinging to the Atlantic Ocean, it became apparent that the country needed a law to allow the admission of free states and slave states. The first attempt was the Northwest Ordinance of 1789.

The original Northwest Ordinance had been promulgated in 1787 under the Articles of Confederation. The primary effect of the ordinance was the creation of the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, from lands south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River.

Following the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 the Congress reaffirmed the original law with some minor modifications and it was signed by George Washington on August 7, 1789. It established the precedent by which the federal government would be sovereign and expand westward across North America with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between free and slave territory in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This division helped set the stage for national competition over admitting free and slave states, the basis of a critical question in American politics in the 19th century until the Civil War.

The Northwest Ordinance began to wholesale admission of new states beginning with Vermont which was admitted as a free state in 1791. The race to balance this out led to Kentucky being admitted as a slave state in 1792.

The following year two events took place that were to have a tremendous impact on the development of the United States with regards to slavery. The Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 based on Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution.

This law guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave and created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished. It also established that children born to fugitive slave mothers were also slaves and the property of the mother’s master, for all their lives.

In response to this section of the law, many Northern states enacted legislation to protect free black Americans (who could otherwise be abducted, then brought before court without the ability to produce a defense, and subsequently lawfully enslaved) as well as runaway slaves.

These laws came to be known as “personal liberty laws” and required slave owners and fugitive hunters to produce evidence that their captures were truly fugitive slaves, “just as southern states demanded the right to retrieve runaway slaves, northern states demanded the right to protect their free black residents from being kidnapped and sold into servitude in the south.” 

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 expanded the slave-catching industry with men acting as bounty hunters capturing and returning many slaves to their legal owners. It also made free blacks targets for these very same bounty hunters due to the high demand for slaves in the Deep South, even if they had “free” papers in their possession.

The case of Solomon Northup documented in the book 12 Years a Slave tells one such story. The historian Carol Wilson documented 300 such cases in Freedom at Risk (1994) and estimated there were likely thousands more.

The other major event that took place in 1793 was the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, Jr. He patented it in 1794. Whitney’s cotton gin model was capable of cleaning 50 pounds of lint per day, making it possible for the profitable large-scale production of short-staple cotton in the South. The demand for slave labor increased with the increase in profitable cotton production.

By 1794 every state had banned the international slave trade. However, in 1803 South Carolina reversed their ban because of the need for more slaves partly due to the growth of cotton production.

The penalties for engaging in the slave trade were onerous. In 1794 Congress restricted the slave trade by a law that stated that no U.S. port or shipyard could be used to build or fit out a ship used in the slave trade. Ships sailing to Africa, whether flying the U.S. flag or a foreign flag, had to post cash bond that it would not engage in the slave trade in the next nine months.

Seamen who worked on a slave ship were fined $200 (more than a year’s pay), and half the penalty money would be paid to informers. The law was enforced, and was strengthened in 1800 by sharply raising the fines and giving all the reward to informers. A commercial ship that captured any slaver could take it to a U.S. port and receive the full value of the prize.

Many in the North hoped that slavery would wither away even after Tennessee was admitted to the Union as a slave state in 1796. But slaveholders in the South saw slavery as the only way that their section could prosper. They would not go down without a fight.


Series Navigation<< The Constitution and SlaveryThe Missouri Compromise >>

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