Nathan Dane played a significant role in the government of Massachusetts and for the United States. He was best known for his work on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Nathan Dane did much more than just drafting the Ordinance, which established the settlement Northwest of the Ohio River. He was a statesman and a lawyer. Dane spent many years of his life reading and writing. He was a member of Congress and the Senate for a number of years. Nathan Dane was a prominent and important man in the small city of Beverly, Massachusetts.
Nathan Dane was born to Daniel Dane and Abigail Burnham who resided in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He spent the early days of his life on the farm in Ipswich, Massachusetts. On the farm Dane learned the value of hard work. He spent most of his days on the farm attending a small common school. Dane enjoyed reading in his leisure time and also he was passionate about mathematics. After reaching the age of twenty-one he became determined to further his education and attempt college level courses. Nathan spent only eight months preparing himself for college. He then entered Harvard College in 1774, and graduated in 1778 with high honors. Soon after completing his college education he read law in the office of Judge William Wetmore of Salem while he was also teaching in Beverly. In November 1779 he was married to Mrs. Mary Brown. On his admission to the bar in 1782 he started his own practice in Beverly.
Mr. Dane was elected a Representative of Beverly in the General Court of Massachusetts in 1782 and the three following years. He was elected delegate from Massachusetts to the Continental Congress in 1785. Dane was reelected in 1786 and 1787. As a delegate his chief focus for consideration before the Congress was the government and organization of the territory Northwest of the Ohio River.
In the previous year a group of Revolutionary War veterans, headed by Gen. Rufus Putnam, Winthrop Sargent, and a few others became interested in the Ohio Valley. A major participant in the Northwest Ordinance was Manasseh Cutler. Cutler joined the Ohio Company and was one of the original members to draft its articles and agreement. The Ohio Company planned to secure the area near the Ohio and Muskingum rivers from Congress. Cutler was sent to New York in 1787 to negotiate with Congress. Nathan Dane created the outline for the administration of the territory and then submitted them to Cutler who made a few suggestions. The Ordinance was adopted July 13, 1787. Cutler worked with Congress and lobbied hard for the Ohio Company. On October 27, 1787, a contract was signed by the Treasury Board granting the Ohio Company the right to occupy a half a million acres of the region. Soon after the contract was signed, colonization began. The first settlement of Ohio was the town of Marietta.
In the Northwest Ordinance, Dane took the initiative to exclude the region from involuntary servitude. Slavery would never be allowed in the new territory. Dane composed the final draft of the Ordinance, which established the future of the territory Northwest of the Ohio River.
Dane opposed the new federal Constitution as it was finally drafted. He was unsuccessful in the election for the state convention to consider its ratification.
Nathan Dane retired from congress and resumed his law practice in Beverly. In 1790 he was elected to the Massachusetts Senate and was reelected in 1793, the same year he was appointed a judge of the Court of Common Pleas for Essex County. He resigned without taking his seat on the bench. In 1795 Dane was appointed a commissioner to revise the laws of the Commonwealth. He was reelected annually to the Massachusetts Senate from 1793- 1798. He was becoming increasingly hard of hearing, making it difficult for him to participate in public assemblages. Dane continued to assist in the work of the Statute Revision, in 1812, Dane along with Presscott and Story, composed the commission appointed to revise and publish the Massachusetts colonial and provincial laws. In the same year he was elected a Presidential elector. In 1814, Dane went to the Hartford Convention. It was believed by many, the Hartford Convention was a meeting to secede from the union. The members of the Convention including Dane were thought to have wanted to create a new country. He was also chosen as a delegate from Beverly to the constitutional convention of 1820, it was known that he would be unable to attend.
At this time Dane had become entirely deaf, he withdrew from his practice and devoted his time to completing two works which he had continuously written for upwards of thirty year. “A Moral and Political Survey of America,” was never published. His other work was a general abridgment and district of American Law with Occasional Notes and Comments, was published in eight volumes in 1823, a supplementary volume appeared in 1829. This was so important because this was the first book of law to be written and published in the United States. His books were used as text books in schools and as general outlines for laws in Massachusetts.
Dane was a member of the Massachusetts Agricultural Society, the Massachusetts and Essex Historical Societies, the American Antiquarian Society. He was elected an honorary member of the Michigan and Indiana Historical Societies for his work on the ordinance, which established the basic laws of those states. There was also the Dane Law Library of Ohio, which he was a donor. He was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Temperance Society. This was the first Society of its kind. He was also the president and a major contributor to the Society. The Massachusetts Temperance Society was established with the hope to stop public drunkenness and drinking at the workplace. This Society displayed the morals and ethics of Dane.
Dane spent most of his life having problems with his hearing. He was increasingly deaf so he was asked to dismiss himself from many of the societies he was a member of. The meetings were oral and Dane had a tough time dealing with his deafness.
The last twenty years of Dane’s life he never spent less than twelve and often fourteen hours a day in his library. He was regarded as a simple man. He had a thirst for knowledge and read in his library until the day before he passed away. In his lifetime he gave $15,000 to Harvard Law School. This went to Dane Professorship of Law and also to the founding of Dane Hall. He died in Beverly at the age of eighty-three.