This is part two of a series of columns on the Midwest Constitution.
On July 13, 1787 — 234 years ago today — Congress did something extraordinary:
It banned slavery in the Midwest.
The Midwest Slavery Ban is one of the most important laws in American history.
But most Americans — and most Midwesterners — have never heard of it.
Article 6 of the Midwest Constitution, better known as the Northwest Ordinance, provided:
“There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
By 1860, the Midwest Slavery Ban had been extended to every state and territory in the region by Congress and voters.
It made the Midwest the first region in America where slavery was illegal.
(There was one big exception: Missouri was admitted as a slave state under the Missouri Compromise.)
The Midwest became a Promised Land in the minds of many African Americans.
For many, it later proved to be a Betrayal Land.
The slavery ban had loopholes.
Some Southerners brought African Americans into the region, claiming they were “indentured servants” rather than slaves, or that they were in transit, and the ban didn’t apply to them.
Still, for most African Americans in the Midwest, the Midwest Slavery Ban meant freedom.
And despite the loopholes, plantation slavery never took root in the Midwest’s fertile soil.
That freedom was real enough that it attracted free African Americans to flock to the region by the thousands. Hundreds of free Black settlements were established in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and more before the Civil War.
Among the freemen drawn to the free Midwest: Eston and Madison Hemings, the once-enslaved sons of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, former slaves from Jefferson’s Monticello plantation built their own community around Eden Baptist Church in Waverly, Ohio.
And the Midwest slavery ban was real enough that from the moment it was enacted, Southerners tried to repeal it. Indiana settlers from the South led by Governor and future President William Henry Harrison petitioned Congress to repeal the ban. Their petition never went anywhere. Southern settlers tried to repeal the ban in the state conventions of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
They failed every time.
Southerners did chip away at it. Slavery’s legality was left to the voters in Kansas and Nebraska. In Kansas, despite — or because of — the “Bleeding Kansas” state slavery war, Kansas voters ultimately rejected slavery. And outlier Missouri entered the Union as a slave state.
But the ban endured. If anything, its power grew stronger, Southern resistance more desperate and Midwesterners’ opposition greater.
The Midwest became the heart of the Underground Railroad.
The Iowa Underground Railroad had “stations” from Guthrie County to Grinnell. In perhaps the most-famous “freedom flight” in American history, 12 enslaved African Americans escaped with abolitionist John Brown, traversing the Hawkeye State en route to Canada.
Midwesterners even staged armed standoffs to thwart federal marshals and southern slave catchers, most famously in Salem in southeastern Iowa.
The Midwest Slavery Ban also was taken seriously by Midwest judges and juries.
Enslaved African Americans used the ban to win their freedom through lawsuits known as “Freedom Suits.” One landmark Freedom Suit case was In the Matter of Ralph, where Iowa’s Supreme Court affirmed the freedom of an African American once he was on Iowa’s “free soil.”
And though Missouri was a slave state, Missouri jurors still enforced the Midwest Slavery Ban. Some 400 enslaved African Americans sued for their freedom in cases before St. Louis juries, citing time across the river in Illinois and other parts of the free Midwest. Many won.
In fact, it was in a Missouri Freedom Lawsuit that the South made one final, and temporarily successful, attempt to repeal the Midwest Slavery Ban.
It was the famous 1857 case Dred Scott v. Sanford, where the Supreme Court declared that Dred Scott, an African American who lived for years in the free Midwest, was nonetheless still a slave.
Often overlooked in the case is this:
The Southern justices who controlled the Court declared that the Missouri Compromise and Northwest Ordinance — i.e. the Midwest Slavery Ban — were unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court’s judicial edict repealing the Midwest Slavery Ban was short-lived. The decision was a major catalyst in the coming of the Civil War, and with it, the end of slavery in all America.
The Midwest Slavery Ban’s power was perhaps best affirmed by the avatar of southern slavery apologists, John C. Calhoun.
Calhoun, in his last speech in the U.S. Senate, just days before his death, gave a speech both bombastic and prophetic, warning that slavery was pushing the Union to Civil War. Anti-slavery efforts in the Midwest were a ticking time bomb, the fuse originally lit by, Calhoun said, the “Ordinance of 1787.”
Calhoun was right. Civil War did come. And he was also right that its root cause was the Midwest Slavery Ban.
The Midwest Slavery Ban is still in effect — it is still on the books, part of all 12 Midwest state constitutions. Check your current Iowa Constitution and there it is, Article 23.
In this the Midwest is unique among regions. Not every state constitution bans slavery, or at least not until recently. Mississippi, mind-blowingly, did not officially ban slavery or ratify the 13th Amendment until 2013.
But there is another, greater, living tribute to the Midwest Slavery Ban.
If you read it closely, you’ll see that the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, pushed by Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln in one of his final major initiatives, and enacted by Congress in the final months of the Civil War, is taken nearly word for word from Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance.
The Midwest Slavery ban became, and remains, America’s slavery ban.
But the freedom guaranteed to African Americans by the Midwest Slavery Ban did not mean equality or justice — which is the topic of the third and final part of this column series.
Dan Manatt is a documentary filmmaker and co-manager of his family’s Audubon County farms. His column Midwest Legacy appears regularly in the Carroll Times Herald and Jefferson Herald.