In 1785 a proposal in opposition to true freedom of religion almost became public policy in the Land Ordinance for the Northwest Territory. While historians have often emphasized the importance of the Land Ordinance of 1785 in setting federal precedent for scientific township surveys of the national domain and for granting land for the support of public education, few have noted that federal support of religion was almost provided for in that same document.(1) An investigation into the politics of the Ordinance of 1785 reveals that a majority of the members of the Continental Congress favored support of religion in the western lands north of the Ohio River, and governmental support for religion nearly became public policy. Though a majority of states did not vote for a religious provision in the ordinance, seventeen of twenty-three congressmen voted for the religious provision. This fact indicates that, while the church-state relationship was being uprooted in America during the post-Revolutionary period, there was still strong support to further religion through governmental action. The concept of religious freedom to many of the congressmen did not mean complete separation of church and state. Many still believed that supporting religion with grants of land was an acceptable practice. Because the clause for the support of religion through land grants was eventually defeated, the Land Ordinance of 1785 can be looked upon as an important step toward freedom of religion in America.
By the time the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1791, freedom of religion and separation of church and state at the federal level had been secured, and individual states had few restrictions concerning either separation of church and state or freedom of religion. Yet, only a short six years before, in a debate over the proposed ordinance for disposing of lands in the western territory, seventeen of twenty-three members of the Continental Congress favored the following provision: "There shall be reserv'd the Central section of every township for the maintenance of public schools and the section immediately adjoining the same to the northward for the support of religion."(2) When the provision came up for a vote, had the wording of the motion concerning religion been "shall the former part be deleted" rather than "shall the former part stand, "(3) the religious proposal would almost assuredly have remained in the Ordinance of 1785.
Why, at a time of strong moves in the states for separation of church and state, and during a movement toward religious freedom, should almost 75 percent of the members of the Continental Congress favor a religious clause incorporated in the organization of western lands? Was it, as Edmund Burnett stated, "nothing short of astounding that a proposition so contrary to the spirit of religious liberty should have crept into the measure"? Furthermore, was it "scarcely less remarkable" that seventeen of the twenty-three voted for it "when a movement was undertaken to expunge it"(4) Was the religious clause "smelling so strongly of antiquated Bigotry," as James Madison stated, that to consider it was "truly [a] matter of astonishment."(5)
When the Ordinance of 1785 was being considered by the Continental Congress, religious freedom was in a state of flux. The movement toward religious freedom and separation of church and state was not strong enough to prevent religious provisions from being introduced into federal land legislation; nor were old religious precedents, especially in New England, strong enough to force religious provisions into all western land bills. Often the provisions were either modified or strick› from the completed legislation.
The last important attempts at federal legislation favoring support of religion occurred in the 1780s. The religious provision was stricken from the Ordinance of 1785. A similar proposal supporting religion was removed two years later from the Northwest Ordinance. (6) The only restriction on religious freedom in the Northwest Ordinance--a questionable restriction to be sure--was the statement that "religion ... being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind" shall be encouraged. (7) In the same decade, two federal land grants to private groups or individuals--the Ohio Company and John Symmes--contained religious provisions. The Massachusetts-dominated Ohio Company received a grant from Congress in the summer of 1787 reserving "section sixteen for schools, twenty-nine for religion, eight, eleven, and twenty-six to be disposed by Congress and two townships for a university."(8) The Symmes grant of 1787 contained a similar provision. The Symmes tract of Ohio territory allowed for one section of each township for religion, one section for education, and one township for a seminary of learning. (9) The provision for religion in the Symmes tract was the last one to be included in a land grant from the federal government.(10)
To many American leaders in the 1780s, religious freedom and government aid to religion were compatible. Two statements in the original 1787 bill that became the Northwest Ordinance supported religious freedom and at the same time gave federal support to religion. On religious freedom, the bill called for "extending... the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty" and further stated that "no person.., shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments." (11) Nevertheless, the original bill asked for aid to religion, stating that "institutions for the promotion of religion and morality . . . shall ever be encouraged."(12)
Historically, religion had played an important part in the political control of the colonies and the granting of new lands. In New England especially, it was common to include land grants for religious purposes. In 1718 a Hartford, Connecticut, company was organized to settle a new town. Three sections or shares were set aside "for pious uses." (13) In New Hampshire, forty charters were issued for new settlements between 1748 and 1768. In each, land was reserved for the minister, the ministry, and a school.(14) Boston, in 1735, received three townships of land in New Hampshire, "one to be for the first settled minister, one for the ministry, and one for a school. "(15) In 1785, the year of the western territory land ordinance, a Massachusetts land law granted one group five townships in the district of Maine. In each of the townships four lots were reserved, "one for the minister, one for the ministry, one for future appropriations, and one for a school." (16) Provisions for religious purposes as well as for education were common throughout New England. The precedent was set for similar provisions in the new western land grants.
In the colonial South, the established Episcopal Church lost much of its influence when the Revolution began. Because of the ties of the Episcopal Church to the Church of England, it was expected that when the Revolution started there would be a stronger movement for the disestablishment of the Church in the South than in New England. The Revolution, too, would have a profound effect on western settlement when land became a form of military payment.
Even before the Treaty of Paris had been signed, Massachusetts's Colonel Timothy Pickering, representing a group of Revolutionary War officers, proposed a plan for a state in the Northwest. In June 1783 Rufus Putnam, who had been interested in land speculation since the French and Indian War, (17) drew up a petition and submitted Pickering's plan to the Continental Congress. (18) The petition called for land of the Ohio to be divided into "townships six miles square allowing to each township three thousand and forty acres for the ministry, schools, wastelands, rivers, ponds, and highways."(19) The petition remained in committee, but the township, school, and ministry provisions were later seen in the 1785 land proposal. It was not strange that a plan such as Pickering's should include a religious provision, for the Massachusetts Constitution of 1779 (20) contained the following clause: "It is the right and duty of the legislature to authorize and require the several towns . . . to make suitable provision at their own expense for the instruction of public worship of God." (21) Understandably, it would be easier for the settlers to have the federal government grant land for religion than to provide for the expenses themselves. The conservative leaders of Massachusetts were not ready for disestablishment. They were prepared to transfer their faith to new territory in the West.
The Continental Congress had good reason for not acting on the Putnam petition, for the western lands had neither been secured from the Indians nor ceded by the several states. Virginia had the oldest and best established claim to the land north of the Ohio River. In September 1783 Congress voted to accept Virginia's cession if Virginia would agree to congressional modifications. On 1 March 1784 Virginia ceded its lands north of the Ohio River to the federal government. Thomas Jefferson, congressional delegate, immediately presented a plan for the temporary government of the western territory. (22) Jefferson's plan was adopted less than two months later with minor amendments. This completed, Jefferson presented a bill on 7 May 1784 "for ascertaining the mode of locating and disposing of lands in the Western Territory.(23) This plan contained no religious provision. Later that month, Congress postponed the plan indefinitely. (24) The bill was again reported unchanged on 4 March 1785.(25) A committee, consisting of one representative from each state, was appointed to review the bill. Less than one month later, a new bill bearing Jefferson's name was presented to Congress. It was in this bill that the key statement on religion, "the section immediately adjoining the same to the northward for the support of religion," appeared.(26)
There is evidence that this bill, which became the Land Ordinance of 1785, was principally the work of two men, William Grayson of Virginia and Rufus King of Massachusetts. Congressman King was strongly influenced by his unofficial advisor, Pickering. Grayson evidently was instrumental in drawing up the document, using the 1784 Jefferson bill only as a guide. In a letter dated 12 April 1785 from James Monroe, delegate of Virginia, to Jefferson, then Minister to France, Monroe wrote: "A report [the Ordinance of 1785] drawn principally by Colo. Grayson will be deliver'd in a few days. It deviates I believe essentially from the one at Annapolis [Jefferson's original bill].(27) The evidence, though, is stronger that Pickering, through King, had the greatest effect upon the bill. Since 1783 Pickering had had a keen interest in western land developments. On 8 March 1785 Pickering discussed the situation in a lengthy letter to King. "In looking over the Act of Congress of 23 of April last," Pickering wrote, "I observe there is no provision made for ministers of the gospel, nor even schools or academies. The latter might have been brought into view.(28) When the bill was reported to Congress on 14 April, Pickering's ideals were "brought into view." The next day, King complimented Pickering on his Ingenious communications on the mode of disposing of the Western territory." King believed that Pickering's 'ideas had weight with the committee who reported this ordinance.(29) Pickering himself believed that his influence had been felt. He wrote to a friend: "Mr. King has sent me the last report about the western territory. I see a great and general conformity to my ideas suggested to him."(30) Virginia's Grayson, on the same day in a draft to George Washington, confirmed the New England Influence. Grayson held that the Eastern states desired the "idea of townships with the temptation of a support for religion and education." He further explained that this support "holds forth an inducement for neighborhoods of the same religious sentiments to confederate for the purchasing and settling together.(31) The New England influence, thus, can clearly be seen.
In the debate over the proposed land ordinance, the key question concerned the method of sale for western lands. New England favored sale by township while the South called for indiscriminate location, the usual form of Southern settlement. Even though days were consumed on the land debate, the religious issue was discussed vigorously, and one day was spent debating the issue in Congress.32 The land sale was resolved through compromise as half the land was to be sold by townships while the other half was to be sold in smaller sections, a provision favorable to Southerners. The religious question failed in compromise and was lost to the Ordinance.
1. No mention of an attempt to include a provision supporting religion by grants of land in the Land Ordinance of 1785 is made in any of the following histories:
Thomas Perkins Abernathy, Western Lands and the American Revolution (New
York: Russell and Russell,1959); Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion:
A History of the American Frontier (New York: Macmillan, 1949); Beverley
W. Bond, Jr., The Civilization of the Old Northwest (New York: Macmillan, 1934); Clarence E. Carter and John P. Bloom, eds., The Territorial Papers of the United States, 28 vols. to date (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1934-); Joseph L. Davis, Sectionalism in American Politics, 1774-1787 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1977); John Fiske, The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789 (Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1902); Amelia C. Ford, Colonial Precedents of Our Land System as It Existed in 1800, Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, no. 352 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1910); David F. Hawke, The Colonial Experience (Indianapolois, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1966); Edward F. Humphrey, Nationalism and Religion in America, 1774-1791 (Boston: Chipman Law Publishing, 1924); Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1940); Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774-1791 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1948); Merrilt Jensen, "The Cession of the Old Northwest," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 23 (June 1936):27-46; Dan M. Lacy, The Meaning of the American Revolution (New York: New American Library, 1966); David T. Morgan and William J. Schmidt, North Carolinians in the Continental Congress (Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1976); Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977); Allan Nevins, The American States During and After the Revolution: 1775-1789 (New York: Macmillan, 1924); Frederic A. Ogg, The Old Northwest (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1920); Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1791 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Harry N. Scheiber, ed., The Old Northwest (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969); Jack M. Sosin, ed., The Opening of the West (New York: Harper and Row, 1969); Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1920); James C. Welling, "The Land Politics of the United States," in Proceedings of the New York Historical Society (New York: New York Historical Society, 1888), pp. 5-40; Esmond Wright, Fabric of Freedom, 1763-1800 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); and Louis B. Wright, Culture on the Moving Frontier (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955). The following publications do mention religion and the Land Ordinance of 1785: George Bancroft, History of the United States of America, 6 vols. (New York: D. Appleton, 1885), 6:134; Edmund C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York: Macmillan, 1941), p. 624; Vernon E. Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963) pp. 10-11; George W. Knight, "History and Management of [Federal] Land Grants for Education in the Northwest Territory," Papers of the American Historical Association, 5 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1885-91), 1:18, 73-247; William D. Pattison, Beginnings of the American Rectangular Land Survey System, 1784-1791 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), p. 26; Joseph Schafer, The Origin of the System of Land Grants for Education, Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, no. 63 (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1902), p. 41; and Payson Jackson Treat, The National Land System: 1785-1820 (New York: E. B. Treat, 1910), pp. 24, 30,264-65. Of these, only Burnett's The Continental Congress and Schafer's The Origin of the System of Land Grants for Education attempt to explain the religious provision.
2. Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 34 vols. (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1933), 28:293-94 (hereafter cited as Journals).
3. The importance of the wording is explained in fn. 37.
4. Burnett, The Continental Congress, p. 624.
5. Madison to Monroe, 29 May 1785, quoted in Gaillard Hunt, ed., The Writings of James Madison, 9 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1901),
6. Journals, 32:318.
7. Ibid., p. 334.
8. Emilius O. Randall, History of Ohio, 4 vols. (New York: The Century History Co., 1912), 2:451.
9. Knight, "History and Management of [Federal] Land Grants for Education," 1:18.
10. Schafer, The Origin of the System of Land for Education, p. 41.
11. Journals, 32:317-18.
12. Ibid., p. 318.
13. Schafer, The Origin of the System of Land for Education, p. 29.
14. Ibid., p. 32.
15. Ibid., p. 26.
16. Ibid., p. 35.
(17). Albert C. Bates, ed., The Two Putnams: Israel and Rufus ( Hartford: Connecticut Historical Society, 1931), passim.
(18). Knight,"History and Management of [Federal] Land Grants for Education," l:80.
(19). Charles M. Walker, History of Athens County, Ohio (Cincinnati: Robert Clark and Co., 1969), p. 34.
(20). Elisha P. Douglass, Rebels and Democrats (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955), pp. 192, 195. Douglass points out that fraudulent tabulation of the ratifying vote distorted the will of the majority and assured the ratification of the Constitution. He also notes that state support of the religious "provision particularly aroused [democratic] antagonism."
(21). Humphrey, Nationalism and Religion in America, p. 365.
(22). A committee chaired by Jefferson included Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, David Howell of Rhode Island, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, and Jacob Read of South Carolina; see Treat, The National Land System: 1785-1820, p. 22.
(23). Knight,"History and Management of [Federal] Land Grants for Education," 1:83.
(25). Journals. 28:114.
(26). Journals, 28:293-94.
(27). Monroe to Jefferson, 12 April 1 785, quoted in Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 19 vols. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950-1974), 8:75.
(28). Pickering to King, 8 March 1785, quoted in Octavius Pickering, The Life of Timothy Pickering, 4 vols. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1867-1873), 1:509.
(29). King to Pickering. 15 April 1785, quoted in Charles R. King, The Life and Correspondence of Rufus King, 6 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1894-1900), 1:46.
(30). Pickering to Hodgdon, 19 April 1785, quoted in Pickering, The Life of Timothy Pickering, 1:511.
31). Grayson to Washington, 19 April 1785, quoted in Edmund D. Burnett, ed.. Letters of Members of the Continental Congress, 8 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institute of Washington, 1921-1936), 8:95.
(32). Journals, 28:293-95. The debates are not recorded, but five amendments were offered to the religious clause.