The Ordinance of 1787 and Jefferson’s Last Letter

In the admirable speech of Mr. Tappan, of New Hampshire, delivered on the 29th of July, we find the following brief history of the Anti-Slavery Ordinance of 1787, accompanied by a letter from Mr. Thomas Jefferson, never before published, which was written only about six weeks before his death. The history of the Ordinance has frequently appeared in the Era, but its importance, particularly in the present crisis, requires that it should be accessible to every person.

We regret that we are unable at present to make further extracts from the excellent speech of Mr. Tappan. Like that of his colleague, Mr. Cragin, it abounds in historical vindications of the Republican platform, and show, beyond controversy, that our party and candidate are the true representatives of the Whigs and Republicans of the Revolution; while the present sham Democracy have abandoned all liberal principles, and adopted the maxims of Austro-Russian despotism.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.

Extract of the Speech of Mr. Tappan.

Sir, what is the history of Slavery prohibition in the Territories? I can barely glance at its rise and progress, as I pass on to other matters. Mr. Jefferson himself is the author of this legislation. And if the doctrine we now contend for be treason, then was Mr. Jefferson a traitor! On the first day of March, 1784, a committee, consisting of Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, Mr. Chase of Maryland, and Mr. Howell of Rhode Island, submitted to Congress a plan for the government of “the territory ceded, or to be ceded, by individual States to the United States,” embracing all the territory between the thirty-first degree of north latitude, which was then the southern boundary of the United States, and the northern line of the United States, extending westwardly to the Mississippi river. This plan provided should be divided into nine States, designating them by name, and defining the particular boundaries of each. It also contained the following provision, which has been the basis of all the subsequent Anti-Slavery legislation in regard to the Territories:

“That after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be ‘neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States, ‘otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall ‘have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty.”

On a motion to strike out this provision, sixteen, among whom was Mr. Jefferson , voted to retain it; and seven voted against it. It lacked one vote of the requisite number- the full vote of seven States being required to retain it. Three year later, however, it was incorporated into the celebrated Ordinance of 1787, which applied to the Territories northwest of the Ohio. It is a remarkable fact, Mr. Chairman, as will be seen by a glance at the map, that if the far-seeing and sagacious policy of Mr. Jefferson , contained in this provision, had prevailed in 1784, under its operation the States of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky, would now have been free States! That the policy thus initiated would have been advantageous to the State just named, a comparison between the thrift, enterprise, and prosperity of those States, and the great free States of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, formed out of the Northwest Territory, under the Anti-Slavery Ordinance of 1787, will conclusively establish, That it would have been better for the destiny of the Republic, let the fierce struggle between the antagonist principles of Liberty and Slavery, which now convulses the country, bear witness!

Mr. Chairman, the Fremont party, to-day, are only contending for the application of the same principle to Kansas, which Mr. Jefferson proposed for all the Territories of the United States, in 1784!

That Mr. Jefferson retained his Anti-Slavery sentiment down to the period of his death, is apparent from a letter which he wrote a short time previous to that event, to James Heaton, of Ohio, in reply to one from that gentleman, making inquiries as to his views on the subject of Slavery. The letter bears date May 20, 1826, and Mr. Jefferson died on the 4th of July of the same year. The original letter, in the handwriting of Mr. Jefferson , is now in the possession of my friend, from Ohio, (Mr. CAMPBELL.) It will be seen from the letter, a copy of which is subjoined, that Mr. Jefferson refers to his opinions as far back as this plan of 1784:

MONTICELLO, May 20, 1826.

DEAR SIR: Persuasion, perseverance, and patience, are the best ‘advocates on questions depending upon the will of others. The ‘revolution in public opinion, which this case requires, is not to be ‘expected in a day, or perhaps in an age; but time, which outlives all ‘things, will outlives, this evil also. My sentiments have been forty ‘years before the public. Had I repeated them forty times, they would ‘have only become the more stale and threadbare. Although I shall not ‘live to see them consummated, they will not die with me; but, living ‘or dying, they will ever be in my most fervent prayers. This is ‘written for yourself, and not for the public, in compliance with your ‘request for two lines of sentiment on the subject.

Accept the assurance of my good will and respect,


Source: The National Era, September 11, 1856

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