Northwest Ordinance Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Ordinance passed by the Congress of the Confederation, laying out the governmental organization of the Northwest Territory.

The Northwest Ordinance was drawn up by the Congress of the Confederation to regulate the settlement and political organization of the Northwest Territory,Territories and new states the land lying north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. It was fundamentally linked to the Land Ordinance of 1785. To ensure its validity, the ordinance was passed again by the new Congress as soon as the Constitution of 1789 had been ratified.

The ordinance was composed of two parts, the first laying out the procedures by which the lands of the Northwest Territory would be converted first into territories and subsequently into states. It specified the appointment by Congress of a territorial governor, a secretary, and three judges who would administer the territory.

The second part consisted of six “articles of compact” similar in character to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights that provided the process by which the territories would become states once they had reached sixty thousand male inhabitants. The compact specified the division of the territory into three to five states, outlined their boundaries, and forbade slavery but allowed the recapture of slaves.

The ordinance came before the Supreme Court twice: once in Scott v. Jones[case]Scott v. Jones[Scott v. Jones] (1847), when the Court ruled that the disputed boundary between Ohio and Michigan was a political rather than juridical issue, and in 1851, in Strader v. Graham, when Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney ruled that the ordinance was without constitutional significance.

Articles of Confederation

Public lands


Taney, Roger Brooke

Territories and new states

Categories: History