Northwest Ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance established the framework for the addition of new states, politically equal to the existing states, to the United States. It marked the rise of federal involvement in the organization of Western lands and the first sectional compromise over the extension of slavery.

Summary of Event

In March, 1784, the Congress of the Confederation accepted the cession of lands Virginia had claimed west of the Appalachian Mountains. A congressional committee headed by Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;Northwest Ordinance Thomas Jefferson, delegate from Virginia, then took steps to provide for the political organization of the vast area south of the Great Lakes, west of the Appalachians, and east of the Mississippi River. The committee’s task was to draft legislation for the disposal of the land and the government of its settlers. The proposal of Jefferson’s committee met the approval of Congress as the Ordinance of 1784. [kw]Northwest Ordinance (July 13, 1787)
[kw]Ordinance, Northwest (July 13, 1787)
Territory distribution;United States
State formation (United States)
Slavery;United States
Northwest Ordinance (1787)
[g]United States;July 13, 1787: Northwest Ordinance[2730]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 13, 1787: Northwest Ordinance[2730]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;July 13, 1787: Northwest Ordinance[2730]
[c]Government and politics;July 13, 1787: Northwest Ordinance[2730]
Dane, Nathan
Pickering, Timothy
St. Clair, Arthur

The Ordinance of 1784 Ordinance of 1784 divided the West into eighteen districts. Each district would be admitted to the Union as a state when its population equaled that of the least populous of the original states. In the meantime, when the population of a district reached twenty thousand, it might write a constitution and send a delegate to Congress. As Jefferson envisaged it, as many as ten new states might be carved from the new lands, many of them provided with mellifluous classical names. In Jefferson’s original version, slavery was to be excluded after 1800, but this was stricken from the ordinance when it was adopted in 1784. The Ordinance of 1784 was to become effective once all Western lands claimed by the states had been ceded to the government. Before the states ceded their lands, however, a new ordinance was adopted that superseded that of 1784.

Before the end of the Revolutionary War, the original thirteen colonies had laid claim to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains—formerly reserved as Indian Territory in the Proclamation of 1763, although exploited by white settlers. After the revolution, Congress began to organize these western territories for future settlement, passing the Ordinance of 1784 and the Ordinance of 1787 (the Northwest Ordinance). The former colonies gradually, if reluctantly, ceded their claims.

The Ordinance of 1787, known as the Northwest Ordinance, was passed, according to some historians, at the insistence of land speculators Speculation;land and politicians such as Timothy Pickering who opposed the liberality of the Ordinance of 1784. The new ordinance, whose final draft was prepared by Nathan Dane, did indeed slow down the process by which a territory might become a state, but it also added certain important features and provided for the more orderly creation of new states. While the Northwest Ordinance may have been less liberal than its predecessor, it was not undemocratic.

The Northwest Territory Northwest Ordinance established government in the territory north of the Ohio Country Ohio River. The plan provided for the eventual establishment of a bicameral assembly, the creation of three to five states equal to the original thirteen states, freedom of religion, the right to a jury trial, public education, and a ban on the expansion of slavery. To accomplish these goals, legislation provided that the whole Old Northwest Northwest region should be governed temporarily as a single territory and administered by a governor, a secretary, and three judges appointed by Congress. When the population of the territory reached five thousand free, adult, male inhabitants, the citizens might elect representatives to a territorial assembly. Property qualifications for voting were established, but they were small. The general assembly was to choose ten men, all of whom owned at least five hundred acres, from whom Congress would choose five men to serve as the upper house of the legislature. The governor would continue to be selected by Congress and have an absolute veto over all legislation.

The territory was to be divided into not fewer than three nor more than five districts. Whenever the population of one of the districts reached sixty thousand free inhabitants, it would be allowed to draft a constitution and submit it to Congress. If the constitution guaranteed a republican form of government, Congress would pass an enabling act admitting the district into the Union as a state on an equal basis with those states already in the Union.

The ordinance guaranteed certain basic rights to citizens who moved into the new lands. A bill of rights provided for freedom of religion and guaranteed the benefits of writs of habeas corpus, the right of trial by jury, bail, and the general process of law. The third American-American Indian relations[American American Indian relations] article read, “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged. The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians.” The first of these moral injunctions was implemented as the inhabitants obtained the means to do so. The second, regarding the American Indians, has still to be achieved. The fourth article established the basis for relations between the general government and the territories and states that might be formed from them.

The fifth article of the ordinance provided for equitable taxation and the free navigation of the waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers. The sixth article was epoch-making. It read, “There shall be neither Slavery;Northwest Territory Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” This provision determined that the society that developed north of the Ohio River would eventually be free. Influenced by the French slaveholders inhabiting the region, the interpretation of Article VI forbade the further introduction of slavery but did not abolish slavery or affect the rights of those holding slaves prior to 1787. No such provision was written into the act establishing the Southwest Territory, in 1790.

The pattern established by the Northwest Ordinance was more or less followed in the later admission of states into the Union. Some, such as Texas and California, came in without a territorial period. Others, such as Michigan, caused trouble because of boundary disputes with neighboring states. As for the Ohio Country, Arthur St. Clair, president of the Confederation Congress in 1787, was appointed first governor of the territory. Indiana Territory Indiana Territory was organized in 1803, the same year in which Ohio entered the Union. Indiana entered as a state in 1816, Illinois in 1818, Michigan in 1837, and Wisconsin in 1848. Statehood was delayed for Indiana and Illinois territories as a result of their repeated petitions seeking repeal of the restrictions in the ordinance against the expansion of further slavery in the territory. Congress refused to repeal or revise the section, making slaveholders reluctant to move into the area. The predominant settlement by nonslaveholders eventually led to strengthening of the antislavery movement in the region.


The Northwest Ordinance proved to be a crowning legislative achievement of the otherwise lackluster confederation government. However, while Congress was debating the Northwest Ordinance, the Constitutional Convention (1787) Constitutional Convention was under way in Philadelphia. It has been argued that the antislavery provisions influenced the debates of the Constitutional Convention over congressional representation. Since each state won two seats in the Senate, Southern states acceded freedom to the Northwest Territory by limiting the number of free states formed from the region. In turn, the Southern states hoped for dominance in the House of Representatives through the three-fifths clause counting slaves for congressional representation. Under the new Constitution, Congress reenacted the Ordinance of 1787 as a model of territorial government.

Further Reading

  • Cayton, Andrew R. L. The Midwest and the Nation: Rethinking the History of an American Region. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Provides an overview of the historical significance of the Northwest Ordinance for the Midwest and its influence on that region.
  • Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. 2d ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001. Examines the status of slavery in the newly created republic, including the Northwest Ordinance’s ambiguous provisions on the issue.
  • Johnson, Andrew J. The Life and Constitutional Thought of Nathan Dane. New York: Garland, 1987. The best biographical account of the major author of the Northwest Ordinance and his place in the history of the new nation.
  • Konig, David Thomas. Devising Liberty: Preserving and Creating Freedom in the New American Republic. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. Examines the role of the Northwest Ordinance within the framework shaping modern U.S. freedom.
  • Onuf, Peter S. Sovereignty and Territory: Claims Conflict in the Old Northwest and the Origins of the American Federal Republic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. Analyzes the land speculation conflicts and their role in shaping the powers of the state.
  • ________. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. A comprehensive study of the framing and impact of the Northwest Ordinance and the competing forces that shaped the document.
  • Williams, Frederick D., ed. The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on Its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988. Collection of essays addressing the ambiguities of the Ordinance, and slavery, missionary activity, and higher eduction in the Old Northwest.

American Revolutionary War

Ratification of the Articles of Confederation

Treaty of Paris

Fort Stanwix Treaty

Ordinance of 1785

Battle of Fallen Timbers

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