Continental Congress: The Northwest Ordinance

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Continental Congress

Excerpt from "The Northwest Ordinance"

Issued on July 13, 1787
Published in Documents of American History, edited by
Henry S. Commager, 1943

On July 13, 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, a detailed step-by-step plan that outlined how territories could become states. This ordinance and the Land Ordinance of 1785 were the only major lasting pieces of legislation passed by the Continental Congress operating under the Articles of Confederation. The Articles of Confederation functioned as the nation's first constitution, remaining in effect from 1781 until 1788.

The Northwest Ordinance was based on the Ordinance of 1784, written by Virginia statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). The 1784 ordinance was Jefferson's plan for the organization of government in the Old Northwest. The Old Northwest included territory north of the Ohio River to the Great Lakes, extending east to the Pennsylvania border and west to the Mississippi River. Also in 1784, Virginia had just finished ceding (turning over) its claims on this land to Congress. Jefferson's document laid down general principles for territorial government but did not provide enough detail to establish a structure. It was never put into action.

Historians believe the most likely principal authors of the Northwest Ordinance were Continental Congress representatives Nathan Dane (1752–1835) and Rufus King (1755–1827), both of Massachusetts. The plan called for the Northwest Territory to be divided into three to five territories; then it described a three-step process each territory could follow to become a state.

As the first step toward statehood, each territory had to appoint a governor, a secretary, and three judges. Second, as soon as there were five thousand male residents in the territory, they could elect a legislature and a delegate to Congress. Step three required that at least sixty thousand free inhabitants (non-slaves) live in the territory. The territorial delegate could not vote until step three was completed. When all three steps were satisfied, they could apply to Congress for statehood.

The Northwest Ordinance gave new states the same representation in Congress as the original states had: Every state had two representatives in the Senate; in the House, each state was allowed to have one representative for every thirty thousand residents. This arrangement prevented the older, established states from dominating the new states, thereby avoiding potential conflicts between the states. Congress guaranteed protection of the rights and liberties of those living in new states and those moving to new territories. Significantly, it banned slavery in the states carved from the Old Northwest.

Things to remember while reading excerpts from "The Northwest Ordinance":

  • The Northwest Ordinance created the process for a territory to enter statehood.
  • Sections 3 and 4 describe how the territory must appoint a governor, a secretary, and three judges.
  • Section 9 states that when the territory has five thousand free (non-slave) male inhabitants, a legislature (general assembly) may be formed with elected representatives, one for every five hundred free male inhabitants.
  • Section 14 states that as soon as a legislature is formed, its members may elect a representative to the U.S. Congress, a delegate who will be allowed to debate but not vote.
  • Section 14 promises that inhabitants of territories will have their liberties protected, including freedom of religious choice, trial by jury, and private property protection.
  • Article 3 promises that the Native Americans will always be dealt with in good faith and not have their property rights or freedom disturbed.
  • Article 4 declares that territories and states formed from territories will remain forever a part of the United States subject to the Articles of Confederation. It also states that property owners will be taxed to support the national government.
  • Article 5 allows a territory with sixty thousand inhabitants to apply for statehood. A new state would have two representatives in the Senate, and one delegate in the House of Representatives for every thirty thousand inhabitants, just like the original states.
  • Article 6 bans slavery throughout the Old Northwest and in all states carved from the territory. However, it also ensures that any slave escaping into the territory or its newly formed states will be returned to his or her owner.

Excerpt from "The Northwest Ordinance"

Be itordained by the United States in Congress assembled, That the said territory, for the purposes of temporary government, be one district, subject, however, to be divided into two districts, as future circumstances may, in the opinion of Congress, make itexpedient. ...

Be it ordained by theauthority aforesaid, That there shall be appointed from time to time by Congress, a governor, whosecommission shall continue in force for the term of three years, unless soonerrevoked by Congress; he shallreside in the district, and have afreehold estate therein in 1,000 acres of land, while in the exercise of his office.

There shall be appointed from time to time by Congress, a secretary, whose commission shall continue in force for four years unless sooner revoked; he shall reside in the district, and have a freehold estate therein in 500 acres of land, while in the exercise of his office. It shall be his duty to keep and preserve the acts and laws passed by the legislature, and the public records of the district, and the proceedings of the governor in his executive department, and transmit authentic copies of such acts and proceedings, every six months, to the Secretary of Congress: There shall also be appointed a court to consist of three judges, any two of whom to form a court, who shall have acommon law jurisdiction, and reside in the district, and have each therein a freehold estate in 500 acres of land while in the exercise of their offices; and their commissions shall continue in force during good behavior.

The governor and judges, or a majority of them, shall adopt and publish in the district such laws of the original States, criminal and civil, as may be necessary and best suited to the circumstances of the district, and report them to Congress from time to time: which laws shall be in force in the district until the organization of theGeneral Assembly therein, unless disapproved of by Congress; but afterwards the Legislature shall have authority to alter them as they shall think fit.

The governor, for the time being, shall be commander in chief of themilitia, appoint and commission all officers in the same below the rank of general officers; all general officers shall be appointed and commissioned by Congress.

Previous to the organization of the general assembly, the governor shall appoint suchmagistrates and othercivil officers in each county or township, as he shall find necessary for the preservation of the peace and good order in the same: After the general assembly shall be organized, the powers and duties of the magistrates and other civil officers shall be regulated and defined by the said assembly; but all magistrates and other civil officers not herein otherwise directed, shall during the continuance of this temporary government, be appointed by the governor. ...

So soon as there shall be five thousandfree male inhabitants of full age in the district, upon giving proof thereof to the governor, they shall receive authority, with time and place, to elect a representative from their counties or townships to represent them in the general assembly: Provided, That, for every five hundred free male inhabitants, there shall be one representative... until the number of representatives shall amount to twenty five; after which, the number and proportion of representatives shall be regulated by the legislature: Provided, That no person be eligible or qualified to act as a representative unless he shall have been a citizen of one of the United States three years, and be a resident in the district, or unless he shall have resided in the district three years; and, in either case, shall likewise hold in his own right, infee simple, two hundred acres of land within the same; Provided, also, That a freehold in fifty acres of land in the district, having been a citizen of one of the states, and being resident in the district, or the like freehold and two years residence in the district, shall be necessary to qualify a man as an elector of a representative.

The representatives thus elected, shall serve for the term of two years; and, in case of the death of a representative, or removal from office, the governor shall issue awrit to the county or township for which he was a member, to elect another in hisstead, to serve for theresidue of the term.

The general assembly or legislature shall consist of the governor, legislative council, and a house of representatives. The Legislative Council shall consist of five members, to continue in office five years, unless sooner removed by Congress; any three of whom to be aquorum: and the members of the Council shall be nominated and appointed in the following manner,to wit: As soon as representatives shall be elected, the Governor shall appoint a time and place for them to meet together; and, when met, they shall nominate ten persons, residents in the district, and each possessed of a freehold in five hundred acres of land, and return their names to Congress; five of whom Congress shall appoint and commission to serve asaforesaid; and, whenever a vacancy shall happen in the council, by death or removal from office, the house of representatives shall nominate two persons, qualified as aforesaid, for each vacancy, and return their names to Congress; one of whom Congress shall appoint and commission for the residue of the term. And every five years, four months at least before the expiration of the time of service of the members of council, the said house shall nominate ten persons, qualified as aforesaid, and return their names to Congress; five ofwhom Congress shall appoint and commission to serve as members of the council five years, unless sooner removed. And the governor, legislative council, and house of representatives, shall have authority to make laws in all cases, for the good government of the district . ... And all bills, having passed by a majority in the house, and by a majority in the council, shall be referred to the governor for hisassent; but no bill, or legislative act whatever, shall be of any force without his assent. The governor shall have power to convene,prorogue, and dissolve the general assembly, when, in his opinion, it shall be expedient.

The governor, judges, legislative council, secretary, and such other officers as Congress shall appoint in the district, shall take an oath oraffirmation of fidelity and of office; the governor before the president of Congress, and all other officers before the Governor. As soon as a legislature shall be formed in the district, the council and house assembled in one room, shall have authority, by joint ballot, to elect a delegate to Congress, who shall have a seat in Congress, with a right of debating but not voting during this temporary government. ...

It is hereby ordained and declared by the authority aforesaid, That the following articles shall be considered asarticles of compact between the original States and the people and States in the said territory and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent, to wit:

ART. 1. No person,demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever bemolested on account of hismode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.

ART. 2. The inhabitants of the said territory shall always be entitled to the benefits of thewrit of habeas corpus, and of the trial by jury; of a proportionate representation of the people in the legislature; and of judicial proceedings according to the course of the common law. All persons shall bebailable, unless forcapital offenses, where the proof shall be evident or the presumption great. All fines shall be moderate; and no cruel or unusual punishments shall be inflicted. No man shall be deprived of his liberty or property, but by thejudgment of his peers or the law of the land; and, should the publicexigencies make it necessary ... to take any person's property, or to demand his particular services, fullcompensation shall be made for the same. And, in the just preservation of rights and property, it is understood and declared, that no law ought ever to be made, or have force in the said territory, that shall, in any manner whatever, interfere with or affect private contracts or engagements. ...

ART. 3. 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; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.

ART. 4. The said territory, and the States which may be formed therein, shall forever remain a part of this Confederacy of the United States of America, subject to the Articles of Confederation ...; and to all the acts and ordinances of the United States in Congress assembled . ... The inhabitants and settlers in the said territory shall be subject to pay a part of the federaldebts ... and a proportional part of the expenses of government, to beapportioned on them by Congress according to the same common rule and measure by which apportionments thereof shall be made on the other States . ... The navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence ... shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of the said territory as to the citizens of the United States. ...

ART. 5. There shall be formed in the said territory, not less than three nor more than five States . ... And, whenever any of the said States shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants therein, such State shall be admitted ... into the Congress of the United States, on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever, and shall be at liberty to form a permanent constitution and State government: Provided, the constitution and government so to be formed, shall berepublican and inconformity to the principles contained in these articles. ...

ART. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into thesame, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed andconveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid, That the resolutions of the 23rd of April, 1784, relative to the subject of this ordinance, be, and the same are hereby repealed and declarednull and void.

What happened next ...

Although the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided a process for land division and eventual statehood for territories, settlement of the Old Northwest almost halted by the late 1780s because of Native American hostilities. Tribes that still lived in the region were determined to hold on to their lands. Several tribes, including the Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, and Potawatomi, joined in an alliance to stop advancement of white settlements. They harassed and raided pioneer farms and villages, often killing entire families. The Native Americans obtained guns and ammunition from the British, who still occupied a number of fur-trading posts in the Old Northwest. Under the Articles of Confederation, the United States had no money and very limited power to raise an army to protect the pioneers.

In 1788, Congress adopted the U.S. Constitution, and in 1789 George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97) became the first president of the United States. Under the Constitution, President Washington had much stronger power to establish a national army including taxing authority to raise money. In 1794, he sent the army into the Old Northwest to present-day Ohio, where American troops led by General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796) defeated Native American forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This U.S. victory broke the spirit of the Native Americans in the Old Northwest and secured the area for settlement. Convinced by General Wayne that they had no hope of stopping the spread of settlement, Native American leaders signed the Treaty of Greenville in early 1795, turning over most of their lands in Ohio to the United States. By this time, Britain and the United States had already signed Jay's Treaty, an agreement that required the British to surrender their forts and leave the Old Northwest by June 1796.

Jay's Treaty and the Treaty of Greenville opened the Northwest Territory for settlement. Thousands of settlers poured in. Under the procedures established in the Northwest Ordinance, new states came into the union. The first states to enter were Vermont in 1791, Kentucky in 1792, and Tennessee in 1796. These three had not experienced Native American hostilities as serious as those in the Old Northwest. From the Old Northwest, three more states emerged: Ohio in 1803, Indiana in 1816, and Illinois in 1818.

Did you know ...

  • The Continental Congress, which met in New York City, passed the Northwest Ordinance at the same time the Constitutional Convention was taking place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, between May and September 1787.
  • Under the Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution, Congress had very little power, and by July 1787 it even had trouble gathering enough delegates for a vote. Given this situation, it is remarkable Congress was able to pass such an important piece of legislation as the Northwest Ordinance.
  • The Northwest Ordinance originally applied only to land in the Old Northwest, but it became the model for almost all territories entering statehood into the twentieth century.

Consider the following ...

  • Reread Section 9. What qualifications were required to be a representative in a territory's legislature? What qualifications were required to simply vote? Is ownership of land still a requirement to vote?
  • Predict what types of issues might have arisen if the Northwest Ordinance had not required that new states enter Congress on "equal footing" with the original states (Section 14, Article 5). Think in terms of the original states having more experience and power and all being located on the East Coast.
  • Section 14, Article 3, deals predominantly with how Native Americans would be treated in the Old Northwest. Was this portion of the ordinance carried out as written? Give examples.

Ordained: Ordered.

Expedient: Advisable.

Authority aforesaid: Congress.

Commission: Appointment.

Revoked: Withdrawn.

Reside: Live.

Freehold: Privately owned.

Common law jurisdiction: Authority to hear disputes and criminal cases and to make court decisions based on past legal customs rather than laws passed by a legislature.

General Assembly: Elected legislature.

Militia: Military force made up of the territory's citizens.

Magistrates: Persons appointed to hear minor disputes and legal cases.

Civil: Nonmilitary.

Free: Non-slave.

Fee simple: Ownership.

Writ: Written order.

Stead: Place.

Residue: Remainder.

Quorum: Number of members required to be present to conduct business.

To wit: Namely.

Aforesaid: Mentioned before.

Assent: Agreement.

Prorogue: Postpone.

Affirmation of fidelity: A promise to carry out responsibilities.

Articles of compact: Formal agreement.

Demeaning: Conducting.

Molested: Mistreated.

Mode: Choice.

Writ of habeas corpus: The right of a person to be brought before a judge to determine if he or she can be legally detained.

Bailable: Able to pay money or property in order to be released from custody until the time of trial.

Capital offenses: Crimes that involve the death penalty.

Judgment of his peers: Trial by jury.

Exigencies: Circumstances.

Compensation: Payment.

Debts: Money owed.

Apportioned on: Assigned to.

Republican: Governed by the consent of the people and for the benefit of the people through elected representatives.

Conformity to: Agreement with.

Same: Reference to the Northwest Territory.

Conveyed: Returned.

Null and void: Invalid.

For More Information


Barrett, Jay A. Evolution of the Ordinance of 1787. New York: Arno Press, 1971.

Billington, Ray A., and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Commager, Henry S., ed. Documents of American History. New York: F. S. Crofts and Company, 1943.

Web Sites

"Maps of the Northwest Territory." University of Indiana. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

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Continental Congress: The Northwest Ordinance

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