The Ordinance of 1784 was the first of several attempts by the Confederation Congress to tackle the tasks of organizing and governing lands ceded to the United States by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris following the end of the Revolutionary War.
Continental Congress Struggles with Western Lands
During the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress (May 10, 1775–March 1, 1781) acted as the provisional government representing the thirteen American colonies. Between July 1776 and November 1777, Congress struggled to establish a more formal central government representing all the colonies. As delegates debated the scope and scale of a federal government, one of the major sticking points was the disposition of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The original charters of some colonies (known as “landless”) confined their sovereignty to areas defined by specific borders. Other colonies (known as “landed”) claimed that their reach extended to the western edge of the continent. Unable to reach an agreement, Congress ignored the dispute when it drafted the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777. Instead, the delegates urged the landed colonies to cede their western land claims to the newly created federal government; most of them did.
1780 Resolution on Public Lands
As the individual states wrestled with ratifying the Articles of Confederation, the Second Continental Congress adopted the “Resolution on Public Lands” on October 10, 1780. The resolution called upon existing states to cede their claims to western lands to the United States. By that time, twelve of the states had ratified the Articles of Confederation, but the document required unanimous consent to become law. The lone holdout, Maryland, did not ratify until March 1, 1781, after Virginia became the last state to relinquish its claims on lands north and west of the Ohio River. Following Maryland’s ratification, the Confederation Congress held dominion over the western lands pending the outcome of the War for Independence.
On October 19, 1781, British Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his command to George Washington and the Continental Army at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington’s victory brought a successful end to major hostilities in the Revolutionary War. Following months of negotiations in Paris, representatives from the United States and Great Britain drafted a treaty officially ending the war on November 30, 1782. Signed by dignitaries from both countries on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris formally recognized American independence.
Ordinance of 1784
Besides officially ending the Revolutionary War and acknowledging the independence of the United States, the Treaty of Paris also ceded all the land east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada to the United States (excluding the City of New Orleans). The Confederation Congress now faced the formidable task of governing the newly acquired lands.
During the summer of 1783, Congress formed a committee to consider options for governing the trans-Appalachian territory. On March 1, 1784, “the Committee appointed to prepare a plan for the temporary government of the Western territory” reported back to the Congress. Drafted by Thomas Jefferson of Virginia with the help of Jeremiah Townley Chase of Maryland and David Howell of Rhode Island, the report recommended a systematic means to prepare new areas for statehood. Generally, the committee proposed that as sufficient numbers of male settlers populated large parcels of the new lands, Congress would empower them to form republican governments and apply to enter the Union as new states on equal footing with the original thirteen states. More specifically, the report recommended:
- a method for establishing the boundaries subdividing the new lands based on latitudes and longitudes,
- policies for forming temporary territorial governments,
- allowing temporary territorial governments to send non-voting delegates to Congress, and
- establishing policies and procedures for forming permanent governments and applying for statehood.
Among the requirements for statehood, the committee prescribed that new states would:
- form only republican governments,
- forever remain a part of the United States,
- be subject to the Articles of Confederation and to all acts of Congress,
- not interfere with the primary disposal of the soil by the United States,
- be subject to pay a part of the federal debts according to the apportionments established for the other states,
- not tax lands owned by the United States, and
- not tax the lands of non-resident proprietors at a higher rate than the lands of state residents.
The committee also recommended prohibiting slavery in the new territory.
Congress considered and debated the committee’s recommendation for seven weeks. On April 23, 1784, the members enacted a revised version of the report by a vote of twenty-two to two. Notably, the legislation, known as the Ordinance of 1784, did not include the recommendation to ban slavery.
The Ordinance of 1784 served as an initial blueprint for governing the lands acquired from Great Britain after the Revolutionary War. Subsequent Congresses later incorporated many of its provisions and guiding principles into the Land Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance, which paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States.
The act had at least one major flaw affecting the settlement of western lands owned by the United States. It allowed settlers and land speculators to choose desirable plots of land for purchase before the region was surveyed, a practice that would lead to spotty settlement. That shortcoming was remedied the next year with the enactment of the Land Ordinance of 1785.