After independence and peace, the greatest achievement of the Confederation government was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. From the old Northwest Territory would be carved a huge region—the modern reflection and choice states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. It was the culmination of a series of land measures that began as early as 1780.
Under that wise, far-seeing measure, slavery was forever banned in those lands. Further, the lands were divided into townships six miles square, and subdivided into thirty-six sections of 640 acres each. One of these sections was to be donated for the purposes of public education.
“Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged,” Congress said. Thus, even from the beginning of the republic, the focus of attention in education was on the moral as well as the intellectual development of youth.
The Northwest Ordinance continued Congress’s plan to treat each new territory as a state-in-embryo. Settlers in the territories could establish free governments and write constitutions, and once they had achieved sixty thousand inhabitants, they could apply for admission to the Union as new states. Each new state would be admitted on an equal basis with all previous states.
Thomas Jefferson had set the pattern for this unprecedented treatment of new states with his plans for Kentucky and fourteen other new states. This was the first time in the history of the world that the principle of equality was so recognized. American territories would not be colonies, held in perpetual subordination to the “mother” country. We had learned that from the failure of the British Empire.
A critically important feature of the Northwest Ordinance was its treatment of religion. The first article stated: “No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship, or religious sentiments, in the said territory.” This enlightened principal was little short of revolutionary for its time. No other government had ever laid out such a principal for administering newly acquired territories. In setting up this rule, Congress was clearly drawing on the recently passed Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
Originally introduced in 1779 by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia statute had failed to win majority support in wartime Virginia. When Mr. Jefferson left America in 1784 for Paris, he arranged to stay in the closest possible contact with his good friend and neighbor, James Madison. They exchanged letters, news, books, and pamphlets regularly. Jefferson especially wanted to be kept informed of events in the Virginia Assembly.
Patrick Henry introduced a bill in 1785 to provide state support for “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Many people saw it as a step forward for religious tolerance. After all, Virginia had previously required all its citizens to support the Anglican (now Episcopal) church. Under Henry’s bill, government support would be given to a wide variety of Christian sects.
James Madison, however, immediately stepped forward with his famous Memorial and Remonstrance. In it, Madison showed how government support for only some churches violated the essential religious liberty of all.
Madison showed that allowing the government to set terms for the support of the Christian religion would also permit the same government to control it. Madison’s Remonstrance argued persuasively:
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
So successful was Madison’s argument that many of the Christian denominations saw the force of his reason and petitioned the Virginia Assembly to vote down the Henry bill. The new consensus broke the logjam of resistance to Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which Madison ably guided through the assembly.
Thus, in the midst of a seemingly local legislative contest, a principal was established that has worldwide significance to this day. Madison, characteristically a modest man, nonetheless boasted of the achievement. In a letter to Jefferson, he wrote the Richmond lawmakers had “in this country [Virginia] extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
Less than a year later, Jefferson could write to his friend that “the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom has been received with infinite approbation in Europe and propagated with enthusiasm.” Jefferson meant, of course, the statute had been approved by continental thinkers, philosophes, activists; certainly, it was not welcomed by those in power.