The Continental Congress passed an ordinance in 1787 designating the land bounded by the Ohio River, Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and Pennsylvania as the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Ordinance established the basis for United States government and settlement in the region. Congress appointed General Arthur St. Clair governor of the territory. St. Clair shared control with three judges. The governor and judges did not have the power to create new laws, although they were authorized to adopt laws already established in the original states of the Union. In the summer of 1795, they published laws for the territory, borrowed mostly from Pennsylvania. These original laws were known as Maxwell's Code, the original civil and criminal code for the territory. The published version became known as Maxwell's Code because William Maxwell printed it. The document was printed in Cincinnati and is reported to be the first book published in what is now Ohio.
Maxwell's Code was the first comprehensive criminal and civil legal code for the Northwest Territory.
During the summer of 1795, Governor Arthur St. Clair and two judges, John Cleves Symmes and George Turner, met in Cincinnati to adopt a legal code for the Northwest Territory. When completed these laws, known as Maxwell's Code, consisted of thirty-seven different laws. St. Clair and the judges decided that all of the laws had to have been passed previously in one of the original thirteen states. The laws restructured the court system then in effect in the Northwest Territory. They also protected residents against excessive taxes and declared that English common law would be the basis of legal decisions and laws in the Northwest Territory.
The Code was named for William Maxwell, a local printer who set the type, bound the books, and distributed the copies of the Code with the help of his wife and an apprentice.