MARIETTA - To help people relate to the significance of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 Friday, local historian Louise Zimmer referred to a little more recent history.
Zimmer said she's crossed paths in the last few days with many people grateful to be, or looking forward to, getting back to normal after the lengthy power outages and oppressive heat that followed a powerful wind storm two weeks ago.
"In 1787 folks, there was no normal," she said. "One war had followed another war. Men who had fought under the banner of the king (of England) now fought under a new banner against the king."
Photo by Evan Bevins
Members of the Marietta Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, in period dress, carry the flags of the United States and Ohio up the center aisle Friday at the conclusion of a ceremony at First Congregational Church in Marietta marking the 225th anniversary of the passage of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
The Northwest Ordinance was an attempt to establish a "new normal" going forward as the fledgling United States of America began to expand westward, Zimmer told an audience of more than 70 people Friday during a celebration of the ordinance's 225th anniversary at Marietta's First Congregational Church. The ceremony was moved from Muskingum Park due to rain.
The ordinance is closely tied to the history of Marietta, the first organized settlement in the Northwest Territory, which consisted of land south of the Great Lakes, north and west of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. But it's also integral to the better-known foundational documents of the country.
"Many historians consider that the three most fundamental documents of the nation were the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the ordinance of the Northwest Territory," said attorney Roland W. Riggs III, who served 38 years as Marietta's law director.
The ordinance, passed by the Congress of the Confederation on July 13, 1787, predated the other two documents.
Reading and discussing portions of the ordinance at Friday's event, Riggs pointed to provisions in the second of its six articles establishing the rights of habeas corpus and trial by jury and a prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
"That's very much the Bill of Rights from the Constitution," Riggs said.
The first article states that "no person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments in the said territory."
Zimmer said that provision of religious freedom is something some countries in the world still lack today.
"Did you ever stop and think what a wonderful thing it is to have the freedom to disagree (on religion)?" she said.
Zimmer also pointed to a provision saying that once the population of the territory consisted of 5,000 "they shall receive authority" to elect representatives - a far cry from what was the norm in other parts of the world at the time.
"Can you imagine anything more radical than the common man having authority?" Zimmer said. "They don't have to have a royal lineage ... they just have to be here. And they shall have the authority to elect."
The sixth article prohibits slavery in the territory, which Zimmer said recognized the beginnings of the conflict that would one day help ignite the Civil War.
"The Ohio shore became a beacon of freedom to a great many people who had lived in bondage," she said.
The audience Friday included a couple dozen students attending the final day of The Castle's history camp.
"It was good to hear all the leaders of Marietta talk about what they thought about the ordinance," said 12-year-old camper Colston Urban of Marietta.
Nancy Putnam Hollister, the former mayor of Marietta and Ohio representative who served as mistress of ceremonies, was particularly pleased to see the children in attendance.
"You are very important in our history and in the future ... of this great city and of our great country," she told the children.
The event was part of the lead up to Marietta's own 225th anniversary, which will take place in April.