Southwest Ordinance (1790)

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Southwest Ordinance (1790)

Daniel C. Wewers

The Southwest Ordinance (1 Stat. 123), approved on May 26, 1790, organized the "Territory of the United States, South of the River Ohio" into one political district and established provisions for its interim governance by Congress and expected transition to statehood. In effect, the Southwest Ordinance served the same purpose for the "Old Southwest" as the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had for the "territory north-west of the Ohio." While the Southwest Territory comprised the former western districts of North Carolina, South Carolina, and possibly Georgia as far west as the Mississippi River, in practice its provisions for territorial government applied only to the future state of Tennessee.

Modeled on the landmark Northwest Ordinance, the Southwest Ordinance granted "all the privileges, benefits and advantages" of its sister legislation and instituted a "similar" form of territorial government, except for certain stipulations set by North Carolina in its land cession of December 22, 1789. The principal among these was the preservation of slavery in the territoryin direct contrast to the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Ordinance's famed Article VI. "Provided always that no regulations made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate Slaves," the inhabitants of the Southwest Territory had guarantees of freedom of religion, the writ of habeas corpus , trial by jury, proportionate representation in the legislature, and judicial proceedings under common law. Some historians have argued that the defeat of the Ordinance of 1784, which had proposed to end slavery after 1800 in all the western territories, demonstrated Congress's tacit agreement to open the Southwest to slavery if the institution was prohibited in the Northwest.

Like its sister legislation, the Southwest Ordinance outlined a three-stage process for the transition from territorial status to statehood. In the first stage, Congress would appoint a governor, secretary, and three judges to administer the territory. Once the district reached a population of five thousand adult free males, the governor, an elected lower house, and an appointed legislative council would assume governing responsibility. When the district crossed the third-stage threshold of sixty thousand free inhabitants, it could adopt a "republican" state constitution and apply to Congress for full statehood.

The passage of the ordinance in 1790 brought order to a situation that had been highly chaotic in the 1780s. In the previous decade, the Old Southwest had experienced a failed attempt to organize the independent state of Franklin, controversy with Spanish agents over navigation rights on the Mississippi, the dissatisfaction of land speculators, and friction with Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes. Territorial status paved the way for the nationalization of these problems. William Blount served as joint territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the entire six-year administrative history of the district. In 1795 the territory elected James White as its nonvoting representative to Congress, the first such member in Congressional history. A 1795 census in the district showed 66,650 free persons and 10,613 slaves, ample proof that slavery had taken root in the southwestern soil. On June 1, 1796, the Southwest Ordinance lost all official force with the admission of Tennessee to the United States as the second state (after Kentucky in 1792) created on the western frontier.

See also: Compromise of 1850; Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854; Missouri Compromise; Northwest Ordinance.


Carter, Clarence Edwin, ed. The Territorial Papers of the United States. Vol. 4: The Territory South of the River Ohio, 17901796. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936.

Durham, Walter T. Before Tennessee: The Southwest Territory, 17901796. Piney Flats, TN: Rocky Mount Historical Association, 1990.

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Southwest Ordinance (1790)

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Southwest Ordinance (1790)