Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787

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ORDINANCES OF 1784, 1785, AND 1787

ORDINANCES OF 1784, 1785, AND 1787. In a series of ordinances enacted between 1784 and 1787, the Confederation Congress established the framework for the privatization of the national domain and for the expansion of the union. In compliance with conditions set forth in land cessions of the regions north and west of the Ohio River by Virginia (1 March 1784) and other states, Congress determined that public lands would be sold for the benefit of the United States as a whole and that settlements would eventually be formed into new states.

The first ordinance for territorial government, approved by Congress on 23 April 1784, invited settlers to form temporary governments that would adopt the "constitution and laws" of one of the existing states. When the new "state" gained a population of twenty thousand free inhabitants, it would be entitled to draft its own constitution and claim admission to the union "on an equal footing with the … original states." The 1784 ordinance stipulated the boundaries of sixteen new states, including ten north of the Ohio River that were given fanciful names by the committee chair, Thomas Jefferson. But none of its provisions could be implemented until public land sales opened the way for legal settlement.

The outlines of congressional land policy were sketched in a companion ordinance proposed to Congress on 30 April 1784 by Jefferson and Hugh Williamson of North Carolina. Under the proposed scheme, prior to settlement, the national domain would be surveyed and divided into the now familiar grid system. The ordinance, eventually adopted by Congress on 20 May 1785, incorporated the prior survey principle, dividing the national domain into townships of six square miles each. Beginning with seven ranges running north from the Ohio River to Lake Erie; when the first surveys were completed, the townships would be sold in fractional units at a dollar per acre. Sluggish land sales made Congress receptive to the overtures of land companies, most notably the Ohio Company, which purchased 1.5 million acres of land west of the seven ranges at the much-reduced price of a million dollars in depreciated continental certificates. Despite these and future modifications, Congress successfully established its authority over land distribution, extending the survey system throughout the national domain.

Implementation of congressional land policy precipitated changes in territorial government and led to the formation of new states. The new land system and a military presence capable of driving off illegal squatters and defending settlements against the Ohio Indians (who resisted encroachments on their ancestral lands) called for a much stronger and more elaborate "temporary" government. The greatest pressure to revise the 1784 ordinance came from prospective settlers themselves. Because their first concerns were with law and order and secure land titles, they pressed Congress to set up a court system under its own authority before providing for territorial self-government. It was no coincidence that the Ohio Company purchase was completed on 14 July 1787, the day after the Northwest Ordinance was enacted.

On 13 July 1786, Congress made the key move in abandoning the 1784 ordinance by adopting the report of a new committee on western government headed by James Monroe of Virginia. Monroe urged Congress to create a "colonial" system for the Northwest and, based on his own observations of the region's potential, concluded that it should ultimately be divided into "not more than five nor less than three" new states. On 13 July 1787, these principles were incorporated into the "Northwest Ordinance" to regulate the territorial government.

In the first stage of territorial government prescribed by the new ordinance, Congress would govern through the appointment of a governor, a secretary, and three judges. The governor appointed all subordinate civil officers, as "he shall find necessary for the preservation of peace and good order." Settlers would gain legislative representation in the second stage, once there were five thousand free adult males in the territory, and admission to the union was guaranteed when "any of the said States shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants." The ordinance also provided for the inheritance of estates as well as "articles of compact," guaranteeing settlers' legal rights and civil liberties and securing the status of the new territories and their successor states in the union. The most famous compact article, the sixth, provided that "there shall never be Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the said territory."

Responding to settlers' demands, Congress eventually dispensed with "colonial" rule in the first stage, and the ban on slavery was quietly dropped in federal territories south of the Ohio (beginning with the Southwest Territory in 1790). Nor were other specific provisions of the ordinance, including the new state boundaries sketched out in the fifth compact article, faithfully observed in practice. Nonetheless, the Northwest Ordinance assumed a quasi-constitutional status in the developing territorial system, particularly in the new states in the Old Northwest.


Eblen, Jack Ericson. The First and Second United States Empires: Governors and Territorial Governments, 1784–1912. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.

Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Philbrick, Francis S. The Laws of Illinois Territory, 1809–1818. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1950.

Peter S.Onuf

See alsoLand Policy ; Northwest Territory ; Ohio Company of Virginia .