Property and Republicanism in the Northwest Ordinance
62 Pages Posted: 7 Mar 2014
Date Written: March 5, 2014
Property rights were central to the political ideology of the founding era. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 shows how the concept of property was part of both the liberal and the republican narratives of the revolutionary and constitutional eras. Conventional wisdom holds that property rights were key to the liberal argument, but that they must yield to the common good in the civic republican view. This Article shows that property was a key concept to both the liberal and republican ideologies at the founding by analyzing a critically important, but relatively neglected, founding document: the Northwest Ordinance.
The Northwest Ordinance -- one of the four most important American founding documents -- established governance in the unorganized territories of the new nation, and provided the blueprint for admitting new states to the union. A close reading of the Ordinance shows that it is fundamentally concerned with property rights, but is also thoroughly republican in character. It provides numerous rules about property ownership, in terms of inheritance, transactions, and political participation. It contains individual-rights precursors to the Constitution’s property clauses, including direct historical links to the Contracts Clause and the Takings Clause. It also envisions the role of property in an expanding republic. The property rights provisions in the Northwest Ordinance reflect a concern for not only individual liberty, but also for the promotion of the common good, through a virtuous society of individual property owners. The Northwest Ordinance shows that both the liberal and the republican narrative of the founding era rely on a fundamental consideration for individual property rights.
Keywords: Property, Legal History, Land Use, Property Rights, Constitutional Law
JEL Classification: K11
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation