Nathan Dane - The Father of American Jurisprudence

Nathan Dane - The Father of American Jurisprudence

Nathan Dane played a significant role in writing the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, specifically the abolition of slavery.

Dane also proposed to the Continental Congress the idea of having a convention to correct the Articles of Confederation which resulted in the US Constitution.

Later in life, Dane wrote extensively on American law and is today considered the Father of American Jurisprudence.

Nathan Dane

Nathan Dane was born to humble origins.  His father was a Massachusetts farmer and all signs pointed to Nathan doing the same.  

Dane was blessed with above average intelligence, however, and was able to gain entry to Harvard.  After graduation, he passed the bar and opened a law practice.

Nathan’s intelligence and hard work were recognized by his contemporaries and he was elected to the State House of Representatives in 1782.

The Northwest Ordinance

After spending three years in the House, Dane was sent to the Continental Congress.  He would remain for the final years of that body’s existence.

Nathan was a primary author of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.  This was perhaps the most important set of laws passed under the Articles of Confederation.  

The Ordinance set the regulations for land which was won in the American Revolutionary War. This area consists of the modern States of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota.

The Northwest Ordinance provided rules for which territories could become states.  It also solidified the governmental structure of these areas.


Dane’s most important contribution to the Ordinance was his insertion of Article Six.  

Article Six called for the abolition of slavery in all these territories. To Nathan’s surprise, this part of the Ordinance was approved unanimously.

There are several reasons the southern States may have approved the elimination of slavery in these territories.

First, slavery was viewed by many of the Founders as a dying institution.  Most expected the practice to slowly disappear (this would change a few years later with the invention of the cotton gin).

Additionally, the geography and climate of the Northwest was not deemed suitable for the massive plantations of the South.  Slave owning States did not see this area as competition.

Furthermore, as slaves would be difficult to transport to the frontier, settlers may have decided to capture Native Americans instead.  Since this would have led to wars with the local tribes, eliminating slavery prevented any hostilities.

Proposing the Constitutional Convention

Nathan Dane understood the benefits of a strong central government.  As such, he proposed the resolution in the Congress to hold a meeting in Philadelphia to ‘revise’ the Articles of Confederation.

Dane knew the results of the Philadelphia Convention would be a stronger federal government. He did not know it would be the United States Constitution.

After the Constitution was revealed to the public, Dane was nervous about many of its powers but supported it anyway.  He was much relieved when the Bill of Rights was passed.

Hartford Convention

After the new government took power, Nathan returned to Massachusetts.  Although he focused on private affairs, he was elected several times to the State Senate.

Dane considered himself a Federalist but was generally seen by his peers as a moderated.  It was in this capacity that he, during the War of 1812, attended the Hartford Convention.

The Hartford Convention was called together to address many of the grievances of the Federalist Party.  Dane attended as a moderate to make sure nothing too extreme came as a result of the meeting.

Father of American Jurisprudence

In his later years, Dane published A General Abridgment and Digest of American Law.  This massive, nine volume work became the definitive authority on understanding the early legal system of the United States.

A General Abridgment became the must-have collection for American lawyers and as a result generated Nathan substantial wealth.

Dane donated much of his new-found fortune to Harvard University to create Harvard Law School.  This quickly became (and continues to be) one of the most respected law schools in the world.

The combination of his text on American law and his creation of the nation’s top law school has since earned Dane the title of Father of American Jurisprudence.  

To learn more about ‘Fathers of’ US institutions, perhaps you’d like to check out the Father of the American Chain Store or the Father of the University of Vermont.

If you want to read more about the Northwest Ordinance, check out the collection of essays available through our affiliate link below. It does a great job of discussing all the points of view surrounding the passage of this Act.

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