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An Organic Law Theory of the Fourteenth Amendment: The Northwest Ordinance as the Source of Rights, Privileges, and Immunities

65 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2011 Last revised: 14 Jun 2011

Matthew Jon Hegreness

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: June 2, 2011


Since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, judges and scholars have struggled to coherently identify the rights, privileges, and immunities that no state should abridge. Debates over the ambit of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, have consistently overlooked a crucial source that defines the fundamental civil liberties of American citizens. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 contains in its Articles of Compact a set of rights that constituted the organic law – the fundamental law – of the United States. Rather than limiting federal power like the Bill of Rights, the Northwest Ordinance enumerates those rights that no state shall abridge. Not only should these rights qualify for protection under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but they also give substance to the terms “privileges” and “immunities” as used and understood by Americans throughout the nineteenth century.

This Note chronicles how the rights in the Northwest Ordinance spread, through various acts of Congress, from the Northwest Territory to all corners of the United States. These rights were integral to the organic law of twenty-eight of the thirty states (a supermajority) that ratified the Fourteenth Amendment by 1868. In addition, the admission of new states into the Union was often predicated on two conditions that state constitutions had to satisfy: they had to be republican and not repugnant to the principles of liberty in the Northwest Ordinance. Once they acquired statehood, however, new states were free to change their constitutions and violate the fundamental civil rights enumerated in the Ordinance. It is this defect in the organic laws of the United States that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to repair, and it is to the Northwest Ordinance that we must look to understand the rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Keywords: Organic Law, Constitutional Law, Fourteenth Amendment, Civil Rights, Due Process

JEL Classification: K10, K1

Suggested Citation

Hegreness, Matthew Jon, An Organic Law Theory of the Fourteenth Amendment: The Northwest Ordinance as the Source of Rights, Privileges, and Immunities (June 2, 2011). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 120, No. 7, 2011. Available at SSRN:

Matthew Jon Hegreness (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

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