Northwest Ordinances Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The three Northwest Ordinances defined the Northwest Territory and provided that territory with a blueprint for governance and economic development. The sales of this land provided the new government with significant revenue.

Shortly after the Revolutionary War, American settlers and land speculators began to press westward into the Ohio Country across the Appalachian Mountains, territory officially closed to settlement by the Proclamation of 1763. The new government recognized the need to frame a process for expansion and a method to extend its jurisdiction over the new territory with its significant economic potential (several states claimed parts of the territory).Northwest Ordinances (1784-1787)

The first Northwest Ordinance, Public lands;disposition ofdrafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1784, recommended that the states abandon individual claims to the territory and that the land be eventually divided into new states, each self-governing but part of the Union (Jefferson outlined seventeen such states, roughly identical rectangles). Although Congress did not pass Jefferson’s recommendation, it did move quickly to survey the new territory–the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 set up thirty-six-square-mile townships and provided a mechanism for selling the rest of the land at a minimum of a dollar per acre (the land sales were the fledgling government’s most lucrative income).

The landmark 1787 Northwest Ordinance proposed dividing the territory into at least three and no more than five territories and that when each territory reached 60,000 settlers, it would write its own constitution and apply for admission to the Union. Thus, no new rival nations could be carved out of the territory. Initially, each territory would be governed by congressional appointees until the population reached 5,000–then free white men would vote for an assembly and send a nonvoting representative to Congress. Moreover, the ordinance proposed fair treatment for indigenous people and recognized their right to property, although this would not be sustained as policy. The ordinance also guaranteed civil rights to settlers, including religious freedom, freedom of speech, and trial by jury (guarantees that predate the Bill of Rights by five years). Far more important, the ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory, thus setting the stage for a half-century of incendiary legislation governing slavery in new territories as the continent expanded.

In this far-reaching ordinance, the new government defined expansion and established a method in which any new territory and its residents would maintain allegiance to a central government and contribute to its economy. The ordinance boldly created the blueprint for ensuring that a single nation would emerge from the settlement of a continent, the actual reach of which had yet to even be mapped.

Further Reading
  • Gunderson, Jessica. The Second Continental Congress. Mankato, Minn.: Compass Point Books, 2008.
  • Hindraker, Eric. Elusive Empire: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Winik, Jay. The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800. New York: Harper, 2007.

Articles of Confederation

U.S. Constitution

Land laws

Slave era

Categories: History Content