Annually, on March 1, Ohioans celebrate Statehood Day, confident that the day of commemoration coincides with the date that Ohio was admitted to the Union. There is little doubt that Ohio was the seventeenth state admitted to the Union, falling between Tennessee and Louisiana, but the actual date upon which the event happened is not so clear. For the past 200 or so years, the exact date has remained controversial. This site reviews how the path to Ohio's statehood contributed to this controversy, and it examines the historical evidence supporting three prevailing points in time that have emerged as contenders for the date that Ohio was admitted to the Union.
The Path to Statehood
The history of Ohio statehood begins with the Northwest Ordinance, formally entitled An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, and also commonly known as the Ordinance of 1787. Originally enacted by the Confederation Congress, the ordinance was affirmed by the First Congress of the United States on August 7, 1789. As the formal name suggests, the purpose of the ordinance was to codify how the Confederation Congress, and later the U.S. government, would govern the vast empire northwest of the Ohio River, which Great Britain ceded to the victorious American Colonies after the Revolutionary War. Most germane to the topic of this discussion is Section 14, Article 5, which states that "There shall be formed in the said territory, not less than three nor more than five States; . . . And, whenever any of the said States shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants therein, such State shall be admitted, by its delegates, into the Congress of the United States, on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever, and shall be at liberty to form a permanent constitution and State government . . . ." Thus, Congress established the general principle that more states would be carved out of the western territories.
By the late 1790s, the federal government had subjugated the majority of the native inhabitants of the easternmost portion of the Northwest Territory, opening the gates to a flood of immigrants from the east. As the area became more populated, Congressional legislation enacted on May 7, 1800 divided the Northwest Territory into two territories, effective July 4, 1800. The first territory, which consisted generally of the area that would eventually become the State of Ohio, continued to be called the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio River. The second territory, which consisted of the remainder of the original Northwest Territory, was named the Indiana Territory.
As the population of the Territory of the United States North-West of the Ohio River approached the sixty thousand threshold established for statehood, activists in the area began devising plans for admission to the Union. Led by Thomas Worthington, Michael Baldwin, Edward Tiffin, and Nathaniel Massie, most statehood supporters belonged to the Democratic-Republican Party. Many opponents were members of the Federalist Party, which controlled most of the important governmental positions in the Northwest Territory, including the governor's seat, held by Arthur St. Clair. St. Clair lobied to have Ohio's western boundary located at the Scioto River, rather than at the Indiana Territory's eastern border. The Federalists hoped that making the area smaller would forestall the attainment of the population requirement, delaying statehood, and thus enabling them to remain in power.
Hoping to wrest control of the territory from the Federalists, members of the Democratic-Republican Party preferred the existing boundary. They appealed to the federal government for help, and in January 1802, the United States Congress rejected St. Clair's plan. The House of Representatives formed a committee to determine exactly how and when Ohio should apply for statehood. Although Ohio had only 45,365 citizens according to the census of 1800, the House committee determined that by 1802 the population already had or probably would exceed sixty thousand people by the time Ohio adopted a state constitution. The House of Representatives and Senate agreed with the committee's findings and enacted legislation that called for the admittance of Ohio as a state as soon as practical.
Commonly known as the Enabling Act of 1802, the legislation:
- Established Ohio's boundaries. The eastern boundary was to be at the Pennsylvania state line; the southern border at the Ohio River; the western border would begin where the Great Miami River flows into the Ohio River and extend due northward to the southern tip of Lake Michigan; and the northern boundary would basically be the border with Canada.
- Authorized the inhabitants living within those boundaries "to form for themselves a constitution and State government."
- Authorized the inhabitants living within those boundaries "to assume such name as they shall deem proper."
- Set the date for convening a constitutional convention (November 1, 1802).
- Determined how delegates to the convention were to be elected.
The act also stipulated "the said State, when formed, shall be admitted into the Union . . . ." President Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation on April 30, 1802.
In November 1802, thirty-five delegates met at Ohio's First Constitutional Convention. Their task was to draft and submit a state constitution to Congress for approval. Twenty-six of the delegates favored the platform presented by the Democratic-Republican Party. Among those men was Edward Tiffin, the president of the convention. Democratic-Republicans favored a small government with limited powers. In their view, the legislative branch would control the few powers that the government actually possessed. Seven delegates to the convention were Federalists. They supported a much stronger government, endowed with broader powers to carry out its duties. The remaining two delegates were independents. Since the Democratic-Republicans controlled the convention, Ohio's first state constitution established a relatively weak government with the legislative branch holding most of the power.
Shortly after the delegates met, St. Clair addressed the convention. The governor still hoped to delay Ohio statehood, in order to maintain Federalist control over the region. He urged the convention to ignore the Enabling Act, claiming that Congress did not have the right to amend the Northwest Ordinance. The delegates responded to St. Clair's entreaty by passing a motion to draft a state constitution directly. Thirty-two delegates supported the measure; two abstained; and only Federalist Ephraim Cutler opposed the resolution. In addition, the delegates forwarded a copy of St. Clair's speech to President Jefferson. Unwilling to abide St. Clair's affront to Congressional authority, Jefferson removed the governor from office and replaced him with Charles Byrd.
The first Ohio Constitution provided all white men with the right to vote, assuming that they paid taxes or that they helped build and maintain the state's roads. It established the office of governor and it gave the governor power to veto acts of the legislature. The governor's term in office was two years. The legislature, or General Assembly, contained two houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Representatives served only a single year before having to be reelected, while senators served for two years. The General Assembly had to approve all appointments that the governor made. The legislature also selected all judges. The Constitution prohibited slavery, honoring one of the Northwest Ordinance's stipulations, but it did not extend the right to vote to African-Americans. Edward Tiffin cast the deciding vote disenfranchising blacks. That was somewhat surprising, considering Tiffin freed his slaves before moving to the Northwest Territory from Virginia. The convention approved the Constitution on November 29, 1802, and immediately adjourned. Thomas Worthington personally carried the document to Washington, D.C., arriving on December 19. Worthington formally presented the Constitution to the United States Congress on December 22, 1802.
Ohio was the first state to be carved out of the Northwest Ordinance, but it was not the first state to be admitted to the Union after the founding of the republic. Vermont (1791), Kentucky (1792), and Tennessee (1796) achieved statehood before Ohio. Unlike Ohio, however, each of those states was officially admitted to the Union by acts of Congress.  In the case of Ohio, Congress enacted no explicit legislation admitting the state to the Union. Lacking a smoking gun, historians and others have debated for over two centuries about the actual date that Ohio became a state. Today, the issue remains unsettled, with three specific dates receiving varying degrees of support.
March 1, 1803
March 1, 1803 is the date that the Ohio General Assembly met for the first time. Supporters of this date contend that, lacking any formal legislation admitting Ohio to the Union, Ohio officially became a state when its government went into operation. That date was endorsed by Congress in 1953 when it enacted legislation introduced by Congressman George Bender from Chagrin Falls. The Bender Act retroactively admitted Ohio to the Union as the 17th state effective March 1, 1803. That date was subsequently adopted by the state's Sesquicentennial commission in 1953, and effective May 31, 1988, the Ohio General Assembly passed legislation designating March 1, 1803 as "Ohio statehood day."
The major shortcoming with this date is that it lacks any substantial evidence from the historical record. It has already been established that Congress did not enact any formal legislation admitting Ohio to the Union. The lack of such legislation does not, however, provide support for another date, ipso facto. One must look, instead, at other historical resources. In this matter, the historical record contains several pertinent testaments: the Enabling Act of 1802 and the journals of the U.S. House and Senate, and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
The intent of the federal government regarding Ohio's admission to the Union, as documented in the Enabling Act, was somewhat vague. As noted above, the document stated, "the said State, when formed, shall be admitted into the Union." Unfortunately, Congress provided no explanation of what they meant when they included the phrase, "when formed." Proponents of the March 1 argue that the phrase equates to, when the Ohio General Assembly first met. An equally valid argument, however, is that the state government was "formed" when the Constitution was adopted. Lacking any explicit evidence regarding what Congress meant by "when formed," the remaining sources of evidence regarding Congress's intent are the journals of both houses of that body. As will be explained later, the preponderance of evidence contained in these two sources suggests that the members of Congress considered Ohio to be a state long before March 1, 1803.
February 19, 1803
Supporters of this date point to an act of Congress, signed by President Jefferson on February 19, 1803, entitled "An Act to provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States within the State of Ohio." The preamble of that act stated,
Whereas the people of the eastern division of the territory northwest of the river Ohio did, on the twenty-ninth day of November, one thousand eight hundred and two, form for themselves a constitution and State government, and did give to the said State the name of the "State of Ohio," in pursuance of an act of Congress entitled "An act to enable the people of the eastern division of the territory northwest of the Ohio to form a constitution and State government, and for the admission of such State into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, and for other purposes," whereby the said State has become one of the United States of America; in order, therefore, to provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States within the said State of Ohio.
The major weakness in supporting this date is the indefinite language of the legislation itself. Note that the act stipulates, "the said State has become one of the United States of America" (emphasis added). Proponents of the February 19 date construe this passage to mean that Congress was conferring the mantle of statehood on Ohio. There is, however, an equally plausible, and perhaps more logical, interpretation for the language used in the preamble. The purpose of the legislation was to "provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States within the State of Ohio." Logically enough, Congress felt obliged to acknowledge that Ohio had already become a state before it could "provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States" – thus, the use of the phrase, "has become." If the intent of the act was to admit Ohio to the Union, as opposed to legislating how the laws of the United States would apply to Ohio, it seems far more likely that the members of Congress would have been more to the point and employed the words "admitted" or "admission," as it did in the legislation that brought Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee into the Union.
November 29, 1802
November 29, 1802 was the date that the Ohio Constitutional Convention approved the first Ohio Constitution. Supporters of this date base their arguments upon three sources: the wording of the Enabling Act of 1802, the official records of Congress, and the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Below is a review of those three arguments.
On April 30, 1802, Congress approved "An act to enable the people of the eastern division of the territory northwest of the river Ohio to form a constitution and State government and for the admission of such State into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, and for other purposes." More commonly known as the Enabling Act of 1802, the preamble to that act stated:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the inhabitants of the eastern division of the territory northwest of the river Ohio, be, and they are hereby, authorized to form for themselves a constitution and State government, and to assume such name as they shall deem proper, and the said State, when formed, shall be admitted into the Union upon the same footing with the original States in all respects whatever.
The preamble contains two essential elements regarding the date of Ohio statehood.
First, Congress authorized the inhabitants of territory to form a constitution and state government.
Second, Congress stipulated that said state "when formed, shall be admitted into the Union" (emphasis added). It is important to note that Congress did not impose any other restrictions or requirements for statehood upon the inhabitants of the territory. In particular, Congress did not require any form of implicit or explicit approval from any branch of the federal government for Ohio to achieve the status of statehood once a constitution was written to form a state government. Thus, one can reasonably argue that when the delegates to Ohio's first constitutional convention adopted a state constitution on November 29, 1802, they fulfilled the requirements enumerated in the Enabling Act of 1802, and Ohio became a state.
Following the adjournment of Ohio's first constitutional convention, Thomas Worthington traveled to Washington, D.C. and delivered the Ohio Constitution to Congress. The Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States reports that on December 23, 1802, "The Speaker laid before the House a letter from Edward Tiffin, President of the Convention, of the State of Ohio" (emhasis added). The entry from the same day further reports that, "The Speaker also laid before the House a letter from Thomas Worthington, an agent appointed by the Convention of said State of Ohio, inclosing a copy of the Constitution of said State" (emhasis added).
It is noteworthy that as early as December 23, 1802, the Journal of the House of Representatives was referring to the former "territory northwest of the river Ohio" as the "State of Ohio." Over the course of the next seven weeks, the House worked with the U.S. Senate to craft the aforementioned legislation entitled "An Act to provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States within the State of Ohio," which addressed administrative matters such as creating a district court for Ohio, and establishing the offices of U.S. district judge, U.S. attorney, and U.S. marshal for Ohio. During that period, the House Journal made reference to the "State of Ohio" or "said state" seventeen times.
One particularly pertinent entry was dated January 24, 1803. On that day, the House was debating the status of Paul Fearing, "a member of this House, who was elected by the late Territorial Government of the territory Northwest of the river Ohio" (emphasis added). A motion was made,
That inasmuch as the late territory of the United States Northwest of the river Ohio have, by virtue of an act of Congress passed on the first day of May, one thousand eight hundred and two, formed a Constitution and State Government, and have thereby, and by virtue of the act of Congress aforesaid, become a separate and independent State, by the name of 'Ohio,' that Paul Fearing, a member of this House, who was elected by the late Territorial Government of the territory Northwest of the river Ohio, is no longer entitled to a seat in this House."
Supporters of the November 29 date can claim with authority that this particular resolution leaves no doubt that as early as January 1803, the members of the House deemed the territory northwest of the Ohio River to be defunct and superseded by the State of Ohio.
Over on the Senate side, the language was much the same. Between January 5 and February 21 there were at least twenty entries in the Journal of the U.S. Senate that made references to the "State of Ohio." Of particular interest is a thread related to the question of Ohio's official status and the application of federal laws in Ohio. On January 6, 1803, the Senate took up deliberations regarding the mechanisms "for giving effect to the laws of the United States within the state of Ohio." On January 19, the Senate resolved "to appoint a committee to inquire whether any, if any, what, legislative measures may be necessary for admitting the state of Ohio into the Union, or for extending to that state the laws of the United States" (emphasis added). The Senators appointed to the committee were John Breckinridge (Kentucky), Joseph Anderson (Tennessee) and Gouverneur Morris (New York). The three men submitted a report on January 19, which the Senate considered on January 21. Following deliberations, the Senate formed a new committee consisting of the same three men and charged them with drafting a bill based upon the Senate deliberations. On January 27, the committee introduced the bill we have come to know as "An Act to provide for the due execution of the laws of the United States within the State of Ohio." What is especially instructive is that the reference to "whether any, if any, what, legislative measures may be necessary for admitting the state of Ohio into the Union" was discarded from the title as well as from the content of the bill. One may deduce from this that the committee and/or the full Senate had determined through their deliberations that the status of Ohio's statehood was not in question, and that, therefore, it was omitted from the title and the text of the final bill.
A final argument in support of the November 29, 1802 date is rooted in the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. That reference work, first compiled in 1859, lists all Representatives and Senators who have served in Congress. The directory for the Seventh Congress (March 4, 1801 to March 3, 1803), lists Ohio as a state with vacant positions in the House and Senate. A footnote to Ohio's listing reports that Ohio was, "Admitted as a State into the Union, November 29, 1802, from territory known as the 'Northwest Territory,' which was originally ceded to the United States by the State of Virginia." Although written 57 years after the fact, this notation certainly lends credence to the position of those supporting the November 29 date.
So when did Ohio officially become a state? Unless some new historical evidence comes to light, it is probable that the date will never be affirmed to everyone's satisfaction. It is this writer's belief that the date most supported by the historical record is November 29, 1802. The Enabling Act of 1802 clearly enumerated the measures that the inhabitants of the Northwest Territory had to fulfill to achieve statehood. Congress imposed no restraints beyond writing a constitution and forming a government. More specifically the language of the act did not suggest or require further action by Congress, including an act of admission to the Union.
The journals of the House and Senate overwhelming support the November 29 date. It stretches the limits of plausibility to presume that the members of Congress made reference to the "State of Ohio" on so many occasions between December 1802 and February 1803 if they did not believe that Ohio was already a member of the Union. The context in which some of these references occurred is also highly instructive. The fact that the bill that emanated from the Senate committee charged with investigating "whether any, if any, what, legislative measures may be necessary for admitting the state of Ohio into the Union" made no mention of the matter is highly persuasive. The Senate must have considered it a moot point.
Finally, the information provided by the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress is as explicit as any evidence that exists regarding the matter. The directory was compiled only fifty-seven years after the event, making it closer in time to the dates in question than any other documentation available (save the journals of the House and Senate). The fact that those responsible for creating the directory definitively state that Ohio became a state on November 29, 1802 is a clincher.
Is November 29, 1802 indisputable? Hardly. Nonetheless, the preponderance of evidence supports that date, but I leave it to the reader to decide.
An Act for the admission of the State of Vermont into this Union, (U.S. Statutes at Large, First Congress, Session III, Chapter VII, February 18, 1791, p. 191);
An Act declaring the Consent of Congress, that a new State be formed within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and admitted into this Union, by the name of the State of Kentucky, (U.S. Statutes at Large, First Congress, Session III, Chapter IV, February 4, 1791, p. 189), and
An Act for the admission of the State of Tennessee into the Union (U.S. Statutes at Large, Fourth Congress, Session I, Chapter 47, June 1, 1796, p. 491).
[2.]These references are documented in Appendix II: Excerpts from the Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States Regarding the Formation of the State of Ohio.
[3.]These references are documented in Appendix III: Excerpts from the Journal of the United States Senate Regarding the Formation of the State of Ohio.
[4.]Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, Seventh Congress, March 4, 1801 to March 3, 1803, p.60.