Northwest and Southwest Ordinances

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The Northwest Ordinance and its successor acts outlined the organization of government for the territories created from the land ceded to the U.S. government by some of the original thirteen states, allowed for the admission of new states on an equal basis with the original thirteen, and prohibited slavery in the region north of the Ohio River.

northwest ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance, passed on 13 July 1787, was the single most important act of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. It created the territorial government and outlined the progression of steps toward statehood for the region north of the Ohio River. The Ordinance served as the basis for organizing other western territories.

Under the Ordinance, Congress appointed a government for the territory consisting of a governor, a secretary, and three judges. The governor was the commander of the militia; a majority of the governor and judges were to create the laws in the territory. When the population reached five thousand "free male inhabitants," a legislature could be assembled. The Ordinance did not require that these citizens be white. The legislature was to have an upper house, the legislative council, and a lower house, the assembly. The assembly, whose members were to serve two-year terms, could be convened with a membership of one for every five hundred free male inhabitants. After the number of members of the legislature reached twenty-five, it would be allowed to determine its own size. The legislative council was to be made up of five men, selected by Congress from ten men nominated by the assembly, serving five-year terms. Legislation would then become law if passed by both houses and signed by the governor, as long as these laws were not in conflict with the Ordinance. The territory had a right to send a delegate to Congress, who could participate in debate but not vote.

The Ordinance determined that not less than three or more than five states were to be laid out within the territory. When the population of any part of the territory reached sixty thousand, that region could apply for admission to the Union as a state on an equal basis with the original states. Congress could reduce the number of citizens required for admission if it saw fit. Ultimately, five states—Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—were created.

Congress added a series of articles to the Ordinance placing certain limitations on the territory and establishing a bill of rights. The bill of rights included freedom of worship, protection of the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, moderate fines, bail, a ban on cruel or unusual punishments, and protection of property rights. The territory was required to encourage education and show good faith toward Indians, whose land was not to be taken without their permission. It was also prohibited from taxing U.S. property or placing higher taxes on nonresident proprietors. The last article of the Ordinance, Article VI, prohibited slavery in the territory. By defining the North as free and the South as slave territory, this prohibition contributed to the growing divide in the young nation over the issue of slavery.

In 1789 the Congress passed an act effectively reasserting the Northwest Ordinance under the new Constitution while making a few minor changes in the reporting requirement for the territorial government by replacing Congress with the president.

southwest ordinance

In 1789 North Carolina agreed to cede to the United States its western territory, which would eventually become the state of Tennessee. In response to such land cessions south of the Ohio River, in 1790 Congress organized the Southwest Territory in its Act for the Government of the Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio. This act was designed to extend the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance to the South, with the important exception of allowing slavery. Georgia's cession of lands in 1802 also made reference to the Northwest Ordinance but exempted the region from the provisions forbidding slavery.


The most important provisions of the acts establishing the Northwest and Southwest Ordinances were those affecting the admission of new states to the Union and the prohibition of slavery. Other than requiring the agreement of nine states, the admissions provision of the Articles of Confederation did not outline how new states were to be admitted to the Union. The Northwest Ordinance and its successor laws outlined a process for admission of the five states of the Old Northwest Territories as well as Mississippi and Alabama in the South.

The ramifications of the slavery provision played a role in the Missouri Compromise (1820–1821), which created a balance in the Union between free and slave states. During the debates over Missouri's admission, slavery opponents used the Northwest Ordinance and its successor as proof of Congress's ability to regulate slavery in the territories and to set conditions for admission to the Union, as it had done in prohibiting the Ohio constitution from conflicting with the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance.

See alsoAntislavery; Articles of Confederation; Continental Congresses; Missouri Compromise;North Carolina; Ohio; Pro-slavery Thought .


Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774–1789. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, American Memory Collection, Library of Congress. <>

Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, 2nd ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2001.

Pathways to the Old Northwest: An Observance of the Bicentennial of the Northwest Ordinance: Proceedings of a Conference Held at Franklin College of Indiana, July 10–11, 1987. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1988.

Taylor, Robert M., ed. The Northwest Ordinance, 1787: A Bicentennial Handbook. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1987.

Donald E. Heidenreich, Jr.

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Northwest and Southwest Ordinances

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Northwest and Southwest Ordinances