Nathan Dane helped ban slavery in old northwest

By Tom Emery
(Continued from Current Stories page) -

Though Dane’s Federalism and anti-slavery views are recognized today, acceptance was hardly universal in some parts of the region in the mid-1800s.  Born in Ipswich, Mass. on Dec. 29, 1752, Dane took an interest in mathematics as a youth and graduated from Harvard in 1778.
He then read law in Salem, Mass. while teaching school in nearby Beverly. After admission to the bar, he opened a lucrative practice in Beverly in 1782 despite a hearing problem that grew worse with age.

Dane was elected to the Massachusetts House in 1782 and won a seat in the Continental Congress three years later.  During his time in Philadelphia, he helped draft the Northwest Ordnance of 1787, which governed the current areas of Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. 
The ordnance also outlined regulations for states to be drawn from the territory and admitted to the Union.  Dane is widely credited with clauses that prohibited slavery in the territory, which greatly altered the course of regional and national history.  Had slavery been allowed in the Northwest Territory, as many desired, the balance of free and slave states would have been far different, with an indisputable effect on American governance to follow. 
In an 1831 letter, Dane conceded that some viewed his provisions as “oppressive to the west,” a feeling that was shared by some in central Illinois, where another Dane County, southeast of Springfield, honored him. That municipality had been created in 1839 from legislation sponsored by Abraham Lincoln, then a third-term member of the Illinois House.

But scarcely a year later, there was sufficient opposition among the heavily Democratic population to Dane’s Federalist leanings.  A mass meeting was held “on the open prairie,” and on Feb. 1, 1840, the name was legally changed to Christian County, after a county in Kentucky.
Dane left Congress in 1788 and returned to his law practice, though he served in the Massachusetts Senate in both 1790 and 1791, and again from 1794-1797.  In 1795, he sat on a commission that codified Massachusetts state laws.

Despite his success in law, he quit practicing around 1800 because of his hearing impairment. He apparently kept other business interests, for in 1802, he incorporated a turnpike company. Still, Dane remained an active political force and was a Presidential elector in 1812 for the losing candidate, Dewitt Clinton.

Dane was also a delegate to the controversial Hartford Convention of 1814, in which representatives of five northeastern states met to voice opposition to the War of 1812.  Secession from the Union was also discussed by some delegates, which gave the convention an infamous legacy.  Dane claimed he never advocated secession, and said he attended “to prevent mischief.”

In 1820, Dane was elected a delegate to the Massachusetts state constitutional convention, but did not serve.  In his last years, he devoted his time to careful legal study and wrote two significant works, including the eight-volume General Abridgement and Digest of American Law in 1823, which became a standard in American law in the era.

Dane supplemented the Abridgement with a ninth volume six years later.  He directed that proceeds from the work should provide for a law school at Harvard. 
Because of his legal research and his influence on the Northwest Ordnance, some have called Dane “the father of American jurisprudence.” Dane reportedly never spent less than twelve hours a day in his library in his later years. He died in Beverly on Feb. 15, 1835.

Today, both Wisconsin and Massachusetts celebrate “Nathan Dane Day” on July 13, the anniversary of the Northwest Ordnance.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or

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