1789 - Congress Passes Northwest Ordinance

George Washington and Secretary of the Army Knox wrote the first draft of the Northwest Ordinance, promising to protect tribal sovereignty and to never encroach on Indian lands unless invited by native sovereigns.

Treaty Of Greenville     The Treaty of Greenville brought peace with the Indians of the Northwest in the Ohio Valley and beyond, but it was not to last.    

      With the passages of the Northwest Ordinance, the government pledged:  "The utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent, and in their property, rights and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress, but laws founded in justice and humanity shall from time to time be made, for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them."

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          Both Washington and Knox openly emphasized their respect for the Indians' land title and rights derived from natural law.  Washington spent more time on Indian issues than he did on any other challenges facing his administration.

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           Just a few years later, the man Washington came to fiercely distrust, fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson, seemed determined to undo everything Knox and Washington had accomplished.  Jefferson wrote that Indian land was "...not as amounting to any dominion, or jurisdiction, or paramountship whatever, but merely in the nature of a reminder after the extinguishment of a present right, which gave us no present right whatever, but of preventing other nations from taking possession, and so defeating our expectancy...that the Indians had the full, undivided and independent sovereignty as long as they chose to keep it, and that this might be forever."

          In stark contrast to the third president, Knox told Washington: "The Indians being the prior occupants possess the right to the soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent, or by the right of conquest in the case of a just war."

        The faultlines that would bedevil federalism for the next hundred years were already becoming visible.