James Monroe and the Three-To-Five Clause of the Northwest Ordinance
By Jorge M. Robert
In recent years, early American historians have re-examined the pervasive influence of American expansionism on the life of the American republic, and the harshly criticized Turner’s frontier thesis of a century ago (1).
The expansion of the English colonies in North America was a continuous process which began as early as the time of the first settlers’ arrival in the New World. The constant influx of immigration and the never ceasing westward migration brought up the need for more territory which in turn would admit always more population, and so on. Paraphrasing the Turnerian dictum, the existence of an area of open land, and the advance of American settlement causing its continuous recession, explain American development(2).
The 1780’s was a decade of fruitful institutional creation for the United States. During those crucial years the young confederation laid down the foundations of its political system and set in place institutional mechanisms which regulated and controlled the future expansion of the American nation.
More than a century ago, Jay Amos Barrett, a Nebraskan historian, wrote a monograph on the legislative evolution of the Northwest Ordinance (hereafter NWO). One of the many intriguing issues discussed in Barrett’s monograph is James Monroe’s influence and role in designing a policy of fewer and larger states for the Northwest Territory which was finally enacted in the Northwest Ordinance as the three-to-five clause (3).
Barrett said that in 1785 Monroe toured the West as an observer and went back to Congress convinced from what he saw that the existing policy for the Western territory embodied in the ordinance of 1784, was impolitic due to smallness of the states projected. In effect, the first successful attempt to regulate the territory North-West of the Ohio river was the so-called Ordinance of 1784 attributed mainly to Jefferson but never actually applied. Therefore, Monroe motioned in Congress for a reduction in the number of states to be created out of the Northwest Territory (hereafter NWT).
Barrett also asserted that Monroe’s proposal was finally approved in the July 7, 1786 Congressional resolution(4). The image created by Barrett’s monograph was that of Monroe visiting the land, the Old Northwest, inspecting its physiographical features, and obtaining thus a clear vision of what should be the most convenient size and quantity of new states to be created in the NWT. This interpretation which has had a lasting influence, was soon adopted with minimal variations by the subsequent scholars of the subject (5).
First, Monroe’s trips to the West will be examined to determine to what extent he became acquainted with the NWT. Secondly, attention will be given to Monroe’s legislative accomplishments. And, finally, some of the factors and circumstances connected with the “new” policy of fewer and larger states for the Old Northwest will be explored.
I. MONROE’S “ROUTS WESTWARD”
Monroe took his seat as delegate to the Continental Congress on December 13, 1783, serving for three years until October of 1786. He reached Annapolis, the seat of Congress, when the ratification of the Treaty of Peace and the acceptance of the Virginia cession were pending. In April 23 1784 an ordinance for the government of the Western territory passed, and two months later Spain closed the lower portion of the Mississippi river to American navigation. Monroe made at this time two trips to the West, one in 1784, and one in 1785.
Tour of the Lakes (1784)
On the 22th of July 1784, Monroe undertook his first tour to the West. Jefferson planned to accompany Monroe, but he then had to depart for France. Monroe’s original plans were to enter the West via Pittsburgh, but he was offered to accompany the Indian commissioners bound for Fort Schuyler in New York. Thus, the trip commenced in Albany. The plan was to pass through the lakes, visit the posts, and come down to the Ohio and thence Virginia (6). Harry Ammon, Monroe’s biographer, said that “the tour was a logical outgrowth of Jefferson’s general interest in the West and Monroe’s own involvement in land speculation. Both realized that firsthand knowledge of the region was necessary to frame sound measures for its future development. “(7)
Monroe sailed from New York with the Indian commissioners in a sloop bound for Albany. In Fort Schuyler, he was an observer at the conferences between the commissioners and the Indians. Fron there he continued his journey with a party bound for Detroit by way of Canada. They embarked in a “batteaux” at Oswego, and reached Fort Niagara. Accompanied by an Indian guard he continued on the American side of the lake to Fort Erie, but, because of Indian disturbances, Monroe went back to Fort Niagara, where he embarked in a British sloop bound for Montreal. From Montreal he went to Lake Champlain, and then to New York by way of Albany. On October 19, 1784, he was back in Trenton where Congress was to meet late in October after its move from Annapolis.
Monroe’s itinerary was then New York-Albany-Fort Schuyler-Oswego-Fort Niagara-Fort Erie-Fort Niagara-Montreal-Lake Champlain-New York-Trenton. In a 7-20-84 letter to Jefferson, Monroe said that the purpose of the trip was to acquire a better knowledge of the posts which should be occupied, the cause of the delay of the evacuation, the temper of the Indians toward the Americans, as well as the temper of the soil, waters and in general a view of the country (8). This 1784 trip seems to be justified by Monroe’s stand and proposed policy concerning the recovery of the posts. However, it is clear that he did not get even close to the NWT (9).
Tour of the Ohio (1785)
Monroe’s second tour took place in 1785. Ammon said that Monroe departed for a well-earned vacation in August 1785, combining personal as well as public interests. In Kentucky, he checked on his land holdings, and he also planned to attend the federal court at Williamsburg (10). Monroe accompanied, unofficially and for his own convenience the commissioners sent to the Ohio by Congress to make a treaty with the Swanees, Delawares, and Wyandots. Their negotiations crystallized in the treaty of Fort Finney signed on January 31, 1786. He intended “to see the country lying between Lake Erie and the Ohio.” (11).
Monroe left New York in August 25th and was back in the city in December 12th. They traveled by way of Pittsburgh and then down the Ohio to Limestone where Monroe parted from his companions to go on to Kentucky to have his lands surveyed, returning to Richmond by way of Lexington and the Wilderness Trace. Monroe’s itinerary went like this, New York-Lancaster-Carlisle-Pittsburgh-down the Ohio-Limestone-Lexington-Wilderness Trace-Richmond-New York (12).
In his letter to Jefferson of January 19, 1786, Monroe said that “the danger from the Indians made it imprudent for me to pass the river, and the delay at Fort Pitt, and upon the Ohio, the water being low, consumed so much of the time allotted for this excursion, that I was forced to leave the commissioners at Limestone and take my course directly through the Kentucky settlements and the Wilderness to Richmond, so that I was neither gratified with the view of the treaty, or to such a degree with that of the country as I had proposed.” (13) Monroe’s observations resulting from this trip might have covered the country on his way to Pittsburgh, the Ohio river from that point to Limestone, and the Kentucky country through Lexington and the Wilderness road, but not the NWT itself.
The traditional account explaining the enlargement of the states projected in the ordinance of 1784 has been based mainly on the knowledge acquired by Monroe in his trips to the West and his 1786 legislative proposal. The often cited evidence is a passage of his 1-19-86 letter to Jefferson, where he said: “A great part of the territory is miserably poor, especially that near lakes Michigan & Erie & that upon the Mississippi & the Illinois consists of extensive plains which have not had from appearances & will not have a single bush on them, for ages. The districts therefore within which these fall will perhaps never contain a sufficient number of Inhabitants to entitle them to membership in the confederacy.” (14)
On this evidence, historians have found that Monroe was the main influence in bringing about a fundamental change to territorial policy for the Northwest: fewer and larger states and, consequently, the elimination of the boundaries enacted it 1784. In the January 19, 1786 letter to Jefferson, Monroe also said that the ordinance of 1784 had made the northwestern states strong instead of subservient to the purposes of the Atlantic states. Moreover, Monroe stated that by reducing the number of northwestern states two purposes would be served, one detrimental to them and one beneficial: first, to weaken their power, and, second, to help them to attained the population requirement of the ordinance sooner, because part of the territory was poor, and other parts were extensive plains without bushes (15).
The two regions or areas which Monroe said would never have enough inhabitants to qualify for statehood were, first, “that near lakes Michigan & Erie,” and second, the area located “upon the Mississippi & the Illinois” rivers. Pattison, in his masterly work on the American Rectangular System says that in his letter to Jefferson, Monroe “doubtless had in mind the extensive swamps and marshes of the former area [that near lakes Michigan and Erie]. As to the latter [that upon the Mississippi and Illinois rivers], he was referring to prairies.” Pattison says that this last opinion of Monroe was “pardonable, because widespread belief about the fertility of the prairie.” (16).
Thus, the two areas of Monroe’s concern were the swamps and marshes, and the prairies. The swamps and marshes were known as the Black Swamp on the lake Erie shoreline which extended around the mouth of the Maumee and to the north, isolating Detroit from central Ohio, and surrounding Toledo (17). The second was the prairie region extended from Illinois to about the 98th meridian with small patches in western Ohio and northern Indiana (18). Monroe’s argument was that these areas were poor and would slow down settlement in the projected states which would in turn never reach the population requirement of the ordinance.
It seems proper to consider what districts were affected by these poor areas. At lake Erie, the Ordinance of 1784 projected one state which Jefferson had christened in the original version of the ordinance, Metropotamia. Thus, the swamps fell within this projected state. On the Illinois and Mississippi, the prairies affected two states, Assenisipia and Illinoia (19).
Eight districts or states were planned by the ordinance of 1784 in the NWT. The poor areas overlapped the territory of three out of the eight states. The Virginia proposed alternative to the 84 plan was at the beginning of 1786 to establish from two to five states not indicating boundaries. Later, on July 7, 1786, Grayson motioned for the division of the NWT by a parallel running through the southern tip of lake Michigan. Below this line he proposed three states and above it two more. It seems that the eastern extension of the line left most of the Black Swamp within the northern district, the future state of Michigan. Therefore, in both plans the swamp affected only one district or state (20).
As to the prairies, they extended east to west, so that, the apportioning of 1784 was more effective in minimizing its impact within one particular district than the 1786 scheme (21). In sum, Monroe was not justified in saying that the entire division of the NWT was impolitic due to the location of these two “poor” areas, because they affected portions of only 3 out of 8 districts. Even if we do not consider Virginia’s new scheme, larger states were going to be more inclusive, so that, the chances of locating the “poor” areas in different states decreased.
Because there is no evidence to support the statements that, first, Monroe knew the NWT first hand, and, second, that he, based on that sort of expert knowledge, came up with a solution to the “problems” of the ordinance of 1784, an inference may be drawn in the sense that he may have utilized the “unfertile lands” argument as a physiographical excuse to justify the modification of the plan. Monroe himself explicitly mentioned first political reasons and secondly as an additional justification to reinforce his reasoning, the physiographical argument which did not amount to much, but received primary attention in Barrett’s monograph.
In the January 19th letter, Monroe says “[M]y several routs westward with the knowledge of the country I have thereby obtained, have impressed me fully with a conviction of the impolicy of our measures respecting it.” This is the same letter where he begins informing Jefferson of the disappointing results of his 1785 tour. His several routs westward were actually two, and the knowledge of the country cannot embrace the NWT, unless he is referring only to a hearsay knowledge. During his first trip -1784- he reached only Fort Erie on the eastern side of the lake, and during the second, he navigated the Ohio river turning South at Limestone. In other words, he neither traveled North through the “west side of the river Ohio” nor toured the Old Northwest which actual extension is about a quarter of a millon square miles. Therefore, he never indeed saw in the 1780’s that country, let alone the “unfertile lands.”
Barrett’s account of Monroe’s vision of the NWT never took place. The assertion concerning his expert knowledge of the Old Northwest and therefore his authority on the subject of state making has been always taken for granted. It may have been so perhaps due to the simplicity of the explanation, and the apparent documentary support provided by the 1-19-86 letter. What can be more convincing than “go and see with your own eyes”? That is implied in the traditional account, that Monroe went to see by himself whether the plan of 1784 was fitted to the geographical reality of the territory. This is nonsense if one considers the extent of the area and the obstacles created by the “temper of the Indians.”
There is a last intriguing point, the one concerning the source of Monroe’s second hand opinion regarding the unfertile lands argument. Where did it come from? It seems clear enough that his geographical knowledge was just hearsay knowledge. Somebody familiar with the NWT informed him about those areas, and he used the account without qualification.
On his way to the Ohio, Monroe stayed in Fort Pitt for some time because the river was low and the Indians were restless (22). There, at that time, was Thomas Hutchins, the U.S. Geographer who arrived on September 3 1785. Monroe called on him between September 22nd and the 30th (23). It is probable that Monroe may have had conversations concerning the NWT with Hutchins who was well versed on the geography of the region. In fact, he had published a map of the NWT along with a topographical description in 1778 (24).
Thus, it is conceivable that Hutchins may have been the source of Monroe’s knowledge. Another probable source may have been George Rogers Clark. Ammon says that Monroe established a friendship with him since the time Monroe served as councilor in 1782 (25). The conqueror of Kaskaskies and Vincennes was certainly familiar with the prairies of Illinois and the surroundings of Detroit.
It is interesting to note that none of the contemporaneous statements concerning the NWT and its future mention the “unfertile lands.” (26). Monroe’s motivation for using the argument may be viewed in the context of his relationship with Jefferson who was his senior political mentor and virtual author of the geographical plan of 1784. He could not put down the plan without adducing some tangible hurdle.
On his 1785 trip to the West Monroe visited the Kentucky settlements and inspected his own lands. Samuel McDowell, a Kentucky resident, in a letter to William Fleming of November 11, 1785 said that they “had had a certain Colonel Monroe with us, a member of Congress who is gone to Richmond, he is violently opposed to our separation from Virginia; and that forever, he has left … arguments against it (in writing) in this Country, I have seen them, but they appear to me such as have not great weight, I wish you saw them, I am persuaded you would be of the same opinion, they are such as, a separation will lessen the [consequence] of Virginia in the scale of the Continental Union while connected we may hope for the trade of the Miss., but if separate we need not expect it, as all the States will then be against it, or careless about it . … you will easily see the tone of that arguments,” (27).
In other words, Monroe’s argument was that, with the separation of Kentucky, first, Virginia’s power would be diminished, and, second, the claim of the free navigation of the Mississippi would be abandoned by the Atlantic states. Monroe was an oddity among the Virginia leaders on the question of the Kentucky separation. Jefferson, R.H.Lee, Madison, and Washington approved, in general, the independence of the western counties, but Monroe had a different view. He opposed the separation of Kentucky believing that Virginia could model its regulations as to accommodate the government to the convenience of Kentucky, and in that way avoid diminishing its power within the Union (28).
At first glance, Monroe’s arguments seem to be grounded in high policy like his “reduction” proposal. But on a harder look, it appears that more personal reasons may have influenced his position. In effect, Monroe’s landholdings in Kentucky were extensive. Besides, his military warrant for 5,333,33 acres that he received in February 1784. The same year, he registered another 20,000 acres in Lincoln County. In addition, during 1783 he had filed entries for 49,867 acres in Fayette County. Finally, on Octuber 23, 1785, during his tour, Monroe made an additional single entry in Fayette County for 42,656 acres (29).
Thus, by the fall of 1785, Monroe had already obtained title to extensive land holdings in Kentucky which allowed him three years later, as Ammon says, to realize “his long-cherished dream: the purchase of an estate in Albermarle. He had acquired 800 acres of land (the present site of the University of Virginia) and a house in Charlottesville from George Nicholas, a purchase made possible by the willingness of Nicholas, who was moving west, to accept Kentucky land in lieu of 2,500 [pounds sterling]” (30). As it looks, Monroe had very powerful reasons to protect his bounty lands in Kentucky from the vagaries of new western states’ politics (31). Moreover, the division of the western country in states following the guidelines of the ordinance of 1784 would have meant the partition of the Kentucky district, and, probably, uncertainty to Monroe’s land title.
While Monroe’s self-interest cannot be considered as an exclusive factor motivating his conduct, it cannot be ignored either. Undoubtly, it had to influence his view of the future of the western states. Some confirmation may be found in contemporaneous opinions. In effect, in 1786, Monroe’s political adversary, Rufus King, wondered in private correspondence “how will this article [treaty with Spain to shut up the Mississippi for 25 years to American navigation] affect the Sale of the Western Territory? The answer which the delegates of Virginia would give (all of whom are probably deeply interested in the Ohio Country West of the Allegheny Mountains) depends in a high degree upon the opening of the Mississippi” (32).
On the other hand, Monroe himself, on May 31, 1786, in a letter to Madison said that King had married a woman of fortune in New York so that if he secures a market for fish and turns the commerce of the Western country down this river [Hudson] he obtains his object.” And, in the same letter Monroe also said that “Pettit who is always here and the influential man from Pennsylvania is a speculator in certificates. He came forward under the patronage of Reid with impressions entirely eastern and the opposition given the requisition last year by the delegation of Virginia has given him an opinion that she [Virginia] wishes to defraud the publick creditors” (33). So, it may be seen that the self-interest argument was used at that time by both sides, at least, in private correspondence.
It seems also significant that, on January 6, 1786, the assembly of Virginia passed a separation law which guaranteed broadly the Virginia’s landowners’ interests. All private rights and interests in lands derived from the laws of Virginia would “remain valid and secure” and determined by Virginia laws. The lands of non-resident proprietors would not be taxed higher than the lands of residents, nor would a neglect of cultivation or improvement of Kentucky land belonging to nonresidents subject those persons to forfeiture or other penalty for six years after admission. It also guaranteed to Virginia the free navigation of the Ohio (34). At the beginning of 1786, then, Virginia let Kentucky go to become a separate state with the boundaries of the district. This evidenced the inadequacy of the plan of 1784 which had split Kentucky land between two new states.
II. Monroe’s Legislative Actions
The traditional account of Monroe’s legislative initiatives to amend the 1784 ordinance indicates that, about three months after he returned from his 1785 trip to the West, he motioned in March 24, 1786 to amend the ordinance as to the size and number of the future northwestern states (35).
Barrett said that “after sounding members of Congress on the subject and finding them favorable, he moved to refer the matter to a grand committee,” citing an excerpt from a letter to Madison of 1212-85 -the day after his return from the western tour-, which in its entirety says: I find the most enlightened members here fully impress’d with the expediency of putting an end to the dismemberment of the old States doubtful of the propriety of admitting a single new one into the Confederacy & well inclin’d to a revision of the compact between the U.S. & Virga. respecting the division of the country beyond the Ohio.(36)
Monroe arrived in New York back from his trip to the West on December 12 1785, and the next day he wrote this letter saying that he found some of the members of Congress in the mood described. By his own account, he did not bring the idea to his colleagues, on the contrary, he found them already propounding those ideas. In brief, the mood of some of the delegates was, first, to stop the dismemberment of the old states, second, to disfavor the admission of new states, and, third, to revise the proposed division of the NWT. Again, as to the last point he did not bring the idea of fewer and larger states to Congress, on the contrary, Congress was already elaborating on it along with the other two issues -dismemberment and admission-. Monroe and his trip brought if anything only one more advocate “violently” opposed to the “dismemberment” of Virginia (McDowell’s observation).
In fact, Monroe said that it was convenient to confine the number of the western states as much as possible, but this thinking preceded his trip and was based on a different motivation. In effect, in August 25, 1785, two hours before his departure “for the Indian treaty on the Ohio,” he wrote to Jefferson that he disliked the idea of Kentucky separating from Virginia because, if that happened, Virginia would have “less consequence … in the Union.” He also said that the Atlantic states should keep a prevailing influence on the new states, because when the Mississippi river be opened to their commerce they would have but little interest in whatever occurred to the Atlantic states.
At this time, he was seeing the closure of the Mississippi with some sort of implied approval, as a factor aiding in keeping the western territory within the Union. He also said that unless the Atlantic states confine their numbers as much as possible, the new states would outnumber the original states in Congress. Monroe finally stated that the matter should be well investigated before any measure was hastily adopted (37).
These letters reveal that, before the 1785 tour, Monroe was inclined to believe that the number of western states should be reduced for political reasons not geographical ones (38). They also show that, after the trip, he found in Congress a movement which among other things proposed to reduce the number of new states to be created in the NWT, based also on political reasons.
“Dismemberment Agitation” in Congress
While Monroe was touring the Ohio, initiatives concerning the admission of new states issue were being discussed in Congress.
It is necessary to go back to October 1785 to understand the reports of March 1786. In the fall of 1785, the landed states reacted to the attempts of several movements tending to form new states out of old ones. First, there was the new state of Franklin comprising the settlements on the Watauga and Holston rivers which at one time included a portion of southwestern Virginia (Washington county). This separation movement began in 1784 as a result of the North Carolina cession, and later, after the repeal of the cession, it remained autonomous in defiance of state authority. The selfgovernment provisions of the 1784 ordinance legitimized the political aspirations of these settlers (39).
Secondly, the Kentucky settlements had been “agitating” since the first conventions began discussing separation from Virginia in 1784. The Danville convention of August 8, 1785 requested from Virginia the separation of the district by sending Muter and Innes to lobby for its acceptance (40). Thirdly, the Massachusetts’ district of Maine began its own quest for statehood in 1785 (41). Finally, last but not least, the “state of Vermont” was at this time still pressing its case against New York (42).
The most urgent claims were those of Kentucky and Franklin, because Vermont’s case had a protracted history, and the Maine movement was just in its beginnings. This “agitation” culminated in the fall of 1785 with a reaction by two the affected states, Virginia and Massachusetts.
In Virginia, the assembly declared “treason” any attempt to separate its western districts (43). In October 7 1785, Massachusetts made a motion seconded by Virginia to appoint a committee to prepare a report for expressing the highest disapprobation of Congress toward the separatists movements (44). Rhode Island, represented by Howell and Ellery, made a motion to postpone the consideration of the Massachusetts-Virginia motion and to amend the Articles of Confederation adding an article to empower nine states or two thirds of the states to erect into a new state and admit into the Union on the terms to be specified any part or district of any of the United States by a joint application of the legislature of the state to which the district belongs and the people of such district. Three states voted for the consideration of this report: Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Georgia. Five states were opposed: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. South Carolina was divided, and New Hampshire and North Carolina were represented by just one delegate each (45).
A new motion by Howell-Ellery proposed to postpone the consideration of the Massachusetts-Virginia motion until 11-585, but it was lost by the same margin. Five days later, on 12-85, the delegates from Massachusetts (Gerry-Holten-Icing) and Virginia (Lee-Grayson [Monroe was still on his tour]) withdrew their 10-7-85 motion and proposed instead that a grand committee be appointed to report what measures were proper to prevent the ill consequences of a particular district in any State acting up and claiming the right of independent government without the consent of the said state and of the United States. It was ordered that a grand committee meet the following Friday.
The committee book reveals that on 10-13-85 a grand committee (Massachusetts represented by Gerry, and Virginia by Grayson) was appointed to consider the motion proposed on 10-12-85 and also the HowellEllery motion to amend the Articles. Later, the large states in agreement with the small states left the motions “in suspence” until anyone of the large ones would bring it forward for approval. The small states were going to lay the matter before their respective constituents, so that instructions might be sent for that purpose (46).
On March 10 1786, this grand committee was discharged and the business referred to a new one consisting of Long, Dane, Johnson, Smith, Hornblower, Bayard, Hindman, Monroe and Pinckney that reported on 3-24-86. Thus, this grand committee was appointed as an aftermath of the “dismemberment agitation” and also to regulate the division of the public domain. Monroe himself in his 1-19-86 letter to Jefferson said that “the tendency which at present prevails for a dismemberment of the old States not only increases their [western states] strength but will also add to the diversity of interest.” (47)
The journal of the Continental Congress for 3-24-86 contains two reports, the first one with a preamble, and no resolution, in the writing of Henry Remsen, Jr. The resolve for this report is said to be spread on the Journal for 7-7-86. The second report in the writing of Pierse Long contains a preamble and a resolution. The Journal indicates that both reports were considered on 3-30-86. No further action is reported on them until July 7 (48).
At that time Grayson and Lee and Monroe proposed to fix the boundaries for five states in the NWT, but the motion was lost. Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia voted in favor, and New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania cast their votes in opposition. Two states, New York and South Carolina were divided. The Southern states wanted to secure the 2-5 clause with the proposed boundaries which was other way to secure the eventual admission of at least five states (49). A motion by Pinckey-Symmes tried unsuccessfully to strike out the 2-5 limitation. The resolution was further amended to limit the recommendation to the state of Virginia changing the minimum of states from two to three, and dropping the proposed boundaries (50). This resolution passed with the unanimous vote of the ten states present and the affirmative but insufficient vote of two more states. The only negative vote was cast by Grayson who had proposed the rejected boundaries.. This vote of 7-7-86 settled the question of the number of states to be created in the NWT, at least three but not more than five. With the passing of this resolution, the NWT was single out from the western country (51).
Thus, the “dismemberment agitation” in Congress led to the legislative distinction between the areas north and south of the Ohio river, forcing the abandonment of the 1784 boundaries. Federal jurisdiction eventually would control on the SWT, but land ownership had already been disposed of by the states keeping those areas as their backlands. It was clear also that the states to be created out of the SWT were going to follow Southern politics. The result was not however so obvious in the NWT and the debate reflected the sectional aspirations to control the region. The Howell-Ellery motion was made in the context of Kentucky, Franklin, and Maine’s “agitation” for the purpose of shrinking the large states as a means of equalization. Rhode Island expected to benefit from it (52). They were not land speculators, but their states foresaw the great benefits to come from a redistribution of the public domain. The equalization issue was to play also its role in the 1787 constitutional convention debates (53).
Once the October 1785 “agitation” in Congress opened the discussion on dismemberment of old states and creation of new ones, it became apparent that the ordinance of 1784 which had encouraged “dismemberment” in the SWT -Kentucky and Franklin-, could have the same effect in the NWT with the dissemination of small states (54). The issue evolved from controlling the formation of new states on the backlands of some states to con trolling their formation on the public domain. Thus, the potential “dismemberment of the public domain” opened the discussion on the politically sound bases for expansion of the Union and avoidance of the formation of new states outside the control of Congress.
Monroe and the Reports of March 24, 1785
The July 7 resolution provided for a reduction in the number of future states to be created in the NWT, from 8 provided in the Ordinance of 1784 to the 3-5 formula, so, it meant fewer and larger states to be set up in the NWT. What was Monroe’s contribution to this reduction? He was a member of the grand committee which produced two reports rendered on, among other things, a Monroe’s motion. The “other things” were the 10-12-85 motion by Massachusetts and Virginia, and the Howell’s motion on the amendment to the Articles of Confederation (55).
Monroe’s motion to the 3-24-86 reports cannot be found either on the journal or among the papers of the Continental Congress. In his 5-11-86 letter to Jefferson, Monroe said that the 100-150 condition of the Virginia cession had been questioned and that a report was before Congress. He did not assume the authorship of the proposal, he just said that “it [the condition] 3was question’d” without saying by whom (56). No reference can be found to support the assertion that Monroe was the chairman of the grand committee. It seems that he was just the member representing Virginia. Finally, neither one of the reports was in his writing (57).
In sum, Monroe was not the chairman of a committee but just a member of the grand committee. His motion to the report cannot be found among the Papers of the Continental Congress. The reports are not in his handwriting, and, when he mentions the subject to Jefferson, he does not assume the authorship of the proposal. However, it is true that the original reports in the PCC No. 30, folios 75 and 79 indicate that both were given on his motion.
The two reports of 3-24-86 were different, but complementary. The first recommended to Virginia and Massachusetts to revise their cessions of western territory to allow the Congress to modify the condition regarding the extent of the new states within a 2-5 limitation. The second, in turn eliminated the boundaries proposed by the plan of 1784 and the provision that considered the articles of that ordinance as compacts between the original thirteen states and the new ones unalterable after the sale of lands but by the joint consent of the parties (58). So, it freed the future sales of NWT from the provision of the ordinance that allowed Congress to amend it.
The preamble to the first report indicated that the division of 1784 was inconvenient because, first, some states would not enjoy the advantages of navigation (navigation); second, some states were inconveniently divided by rivers, lakes, and mountains, thus the division was not conformable to natural boundaries (natural boundaries); and, third, many of the states would probably contain a large proportion of barren and unimprovable lands (unfertile lands).
In his 1-19-86 letter, Monroe only mentions the unfertile lands argument, omitting any reference to the navigation and natural boundaries rationales. The preamble to the first report mentions first that according to the plan many of the states in the western country “must probably contain a large proportion of barren and unimprovable lands,” and then, it refers specifically to “the tract of Country Northwest of the River Ohio” saying that there the “barren and fertile lands [are] intermixed in no regular form.” Thus, it diminished the importance of the argument as to the NWT because there the good and bad lands were intermixed. It was evident, however, that the boundaries of 1784 had been laid down disregarding the natural boundaries formed by “rivers, lakes, and mountains”, and, this obvious problem affected the areas both South, and North of the Ohio.
The unfertile lands argument may have been introduced by Monroe, but there is no evidence that it carried much weight in the framing of the 7-7-86 resolution. The preamble to the final resolution summed up the reasons indicating that “in fixing the limits and dimensions of the new states, due attention ought to be paid to natural boundaries and a variety of circumstances which will be pointed out by a more perfect knowledge of the country.” (59)
As to navigation, Grayson, seconded by King, proposed on May 12 that the navigable waters leading to the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same be declared to be common highways, and forever free without any tax, impost, or duty. This motion may have been drawn with the occlusion of the Mississippi in mind, to insure that the Atlantic states would have unrestricted access to the western regions. In the future, the policy of free navigation and commerce could not be ignored by the western states (60). Grayson even considered this resolution as an alteration of the land disposal ordinance of 1785 (61).
The second report of March 24 was written assuming that the recommendation had been approved and the condition modified, and for the purpose of modifying the ordinance of 1784 to reflect those changes. It provided for the repeal of the boundaries and the compact clause.
The Population Threshold Requirement and the Admission to the Confederacy
What was the real issue under debate on 7-7-86? It turned from being one that confronted the small states against the large ones in October 1785, to a sectional confrontation between the eastern and middle states against the southern ones in July 1786. This is in part explained by the crisis on the Spanish treaty negotiations, but, mainly, by the growing realization that the balance of power of the Confederation itself was at stake in the development of the West (62).
In October 1785, Virginia and Massachusetts were together in claiming their right not to be dismembered, and they remained so in the 3-24-86 report. But, in the 7-7-86 debate, Massachusetts is dropped from the resolution even though its cession had been made agreeable to the 10-10-80 resolution which established the 100-150 condition in the first place. As Monroe said, the 7-7-86 debate “opened the eyes” of the Eastern delegates and it made them increased the number of inhabitants of the new states required for admission.
The population requirement in the Ordinance of 1784 was the population of the state with the least numerous inhabitants. The 1786 proposal meant to make larger states with more chances to include the threshold number of inhabitants required for admission. This idea, however, requires some elaboration because without talking about density of population, the preceding statement seems to be incomplete. In effect, the assumption was that the density was going to be more or less stable and uniform over the NWT based on the fact that an 3agricultural society without great concentrations of population was prevalent at that time. And also, on the assumption that with more territory the population could grow larger and vice versa (64).
Thus, the South was proposing an amendment to the ordinance to facilitate the eventual admission of new states which supposedly were going to follow southern politics (65). It helped not so much to the admission of more states because actually it reduced the total number to be admitted, but it helped southern politics in the sense of allowing the effective admission of new states because they would reach the threshold faster.
It seems then that the direction of policy after the confrontation of October 1785 was, first, to separate the SWT leaving the new states movements subject to negotiation with their parent states. The dismemberment movements in Kentucky and Franklin highlighted the need to distinguished between the ceded and the unceded areas. Secondly, it made the ordinance of 1784 more realistic in favor of admission by reducing the number of states.
The vote of October 1785 was a large-small states vote because the “dismemberment” affected the large and landed states, but the vote of July 1786 was a sectional vote because it affected only the public domain which belonged also to the small states. Finally, a compromise was reached on the 3-5 limit. In addition, as Monroe said, it “open’d the eyes of a part of the Union … to view the subject in a different light.” The “subject” was the political control of the admission process and, eventually, of the Union itself (66).
The 7-7-86 vote may also be seem as a compromise with the northern states which were not enthusiastic about the expansion to the West even though some elements were pushing in that direction (67). It should also be remembered that the holders of securities who were to be paid with the proceeds of the sale of western lands were concentrated in the eastern states. This worked as an incentive to an orderly and controlled disposition of the public lands in the NWT even with large states (68).
The South did favor admissions. If it could not be eight states, three states was not bad and five would be better (Grayson tried unsuccessfully to fix the boundaries for five states). But the compromise was only partial because the population quantity was still open. When the eastern states added the so called 1/13th requirement, Monroe became upset and told Jefferson that their purpose was to keep the new northwestern states out of the confederacy defeating the condition of the Virginia cession. Monroe’s implied reasoning was that the 1/13th requirement meant the postponement of admissions sine die. Jefferson, in his 7-9-86 letter answering Monroe’s of 5-11-86, compared states of 30,000 sq.ml. to states of 160,000 sq.ml. Jefferson called the former “happier states of a moderate size,” and the latter too large for a regular society to exist. It should however be kept in mind that when Jefferson talked of states of 160,000 sq.ml., he was thinking in the entire western country divided in three states, not just in the NWT (69).
The 1/13th requirement which was introduced in the 9-19-86 report on territorial government must have been put forward earlier in July when the original 5-10-86 report was modified, because Monroe mentioned the requirement in his 7-16-86 letter to Jefferson. This new threshold meant a minimum of about 200,000 inhabitants required for admission (70).
The eastern states were opposed to the proliferation of new states for a number of reasons: western states supposedly would favored the south and would probable follow southern politics; the Atlantic states should control the western states and not the other way around; the population was moving toward the Southwest and the eastern states were losing population; the new western states might throw their political weight to remove the seat of government to Georgetown; and vacant land in New York and Massachusetts was depreciating in value due to availability of federal lands (71).
So, the answer of the eastern states to the southern proposal of forming eventually five states in the NWT was to increase the population requirement to slow down the reaching of the threshold. Nathan Dane revealed this connection in his motion of October 4, 1786 defeated on a clear sectional vote (72).