SLAVERY IN THE
BEFORE HE DEPARTED for France as a minister plenipotentiary in the summer of 1784, Thomas Jefferson served six months in Congress and managed, even during that brief interval, to leave several more indelible marks on American history. In a masterly paper he laid the foundation for the system of decimal coinage that was subsequently adopted by Congress. He coauthored a plan for the disposal of western lands featuring a grid system of survey that Congress soon incorporated in the Land Ordinance of 1785. Most notably, he drafted and secured passage of a plan of government for the West that became known as the Ordinance of 1784. 1 In the process, moreover, he raised for virtually the first time the question of whether slavery should be restricted geographically or allowed to expand with the expanding nation.
Creation of the national territorial system may be said to have begun in earnest on January 2, 1781, when the Virginia legislature passed an act ceding to the United States its vast land claims north of the Ohio River. Certain conditions attached to the cession proved unacceptable to the Confederation Congress, however, and not until March 1, 1784, did a modified offer from Virginia win congressional approval. On that same day, a committee headed by Jefferson, submitted its “plan for the temporary government of the Western territory.” 2 The plan called for division of the entire West into as many as sixteen rectilinear states, each to be largely self-governing from the start and to achieve equal status in the Confederation when its population reached that of the least populous of the original thirteen states.