An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio
The Northwest Ordinance (officially the Ordinance of 1787) was enacted by the Congress of the Confederation of the States on July 13, 1787. This statute provided for the government of the Northwest Territory, an area bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and the Great Lakes, and created a procedure by which states could be established within this territory and admitted to the Union. Congress was spurred to enact the ordinance when the Ohio Company of Associates, a group of land speculators, made plans to purchase more than one million acres in the territory.
The Northwest Ordinance set several important precedents. It established that unlike many nations, which left their new territories in a position inferior to the old, the United States would admit new states to the Union on an equal basis with the original states. The ordinance also set aside land in each township for schools, thus setting a precedent for federal support to education. In addition, the ordinance prohibited slavery in the territory and included the first full statement of U.S. Indian policy, which stressed that "utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians."
Be it ordained 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 it expedient.
Source: Francis Newton Thorpe, ed., The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America, vol. 2 (1909), pp. 957–962.
Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid that the estates both of resident and nonresident proprietors in the said territory, dying intestate, shall descend to and be distributed among their children and the descendants of a deceased child in equal parts, the descendants of a deceased child or grandchild to take the share of their deceased parent in equal parts among them; and where there shall be no children or descendants, then in equal parts to the next of kin, in equal degree; and among collaterals, the children of a deceased brother or sister of the intestate shall have, in equal parts among them, their deceased parent's share; and there shall, in no case, be a distinction between kindred of the whole and half blood; saving in all cases to the widow of the intestate, her third part of the real estate for life, and one-third part of the personal estate; and this law relative to descents and dower shall remain in full force until altered by the legislature of the district. And until the governor and judges shall adopt laws as hereinafter mentioned, estates in the said territory may be devised or bequeathed by wills in writing, signed and sealed by him or her in whom the estate may be (being of full age) and attested by three witnesses;—and real estates may be conveyed by lease and release, or bargain and sale, signed, sealed, and delivered by the person, being of full age, in whom the estate may be, and attested by two witnesses, provided such wills be duly proved, and such conveyances be acknowledged, or the execution thereof duly proved, and be recorded within one year after proper magistrates, courts, and registers shall be appointed for that purpose; and personal property may be transferred by delivery, saving, however, to the French and Canadian inhabitants, and other settlers of the Kaskaskies, Saint Vincents, and the neighboring villages, who have heretofore professed themselves citizens of Virginia, their laws and customs now in force among them, relative to the descent and conveyance of property.
Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid that there shall be appointed from time to time, by Congress, a governor whose commission shall continue in force for the term of three years, unless sooner revoked by Congress; he shall reside in the district and have a freehold estate therein, in one thousand 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 five hundred 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 a common-law jurisdiction, and reside in the district and have each therein a freehold estate, in five hundred 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 the general 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 the militia, 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 such magistrates and other civil 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 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.
For the prevention of crimes and injuries, the laws to be adopted or made shall have force in all parts of the district, and for the execution of process, criminal and civil, the governor shall make proper divisions thereof; and he shall proceed from time to time, as circumstances may require, to lay out the parts of the district in which the Indian titles shall have been extinguished, into counties and townships, subject, however, to such alterations as may thereafter be made by the legislature.
So soon as there shall be five thousand free 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 representatives 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, and so on, progressively, with the number of free male inhabitants, shall the right of representation increase 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, in fee 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 a writ to the county or township for which he was a member to elect another in his stead, to serve for the residue 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 a quorum: 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 as aforesaid; 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 the council, the said house shall nominate ten persons, qualified as aforesaid, and return their names to Congress, five of whom 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, not repugnant to the principles and articles in this ordinance established and declared. 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 his assent; 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 or affirmation 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 of voting, during this temporary government.
And for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions, are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments which forever hereafter shall be formed in the said territory; to provide also for the establishment of states, and permanent government therein, and for their admission to a share in the Federal councils on an equal footing with the original states, at as early periods as may be consistent with the general interest:
It is hereby ordained and declared by the authority aforesaid that the following articles shall be considered as articles 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:
No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments in the said territory.
The inhabitants of the said territory shall always be entitled to the benefits of the writs 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 be bailable, unless for capital 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 the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land, and should the public exigencies make it necessary for the common preservation to take any person's property, or to demand his particular services, full compensation shall be made for the same. And in the just preservation of rights and property, it is under-stood 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, bona fide, and without fraud previously formed.
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 never shall 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.
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 such alterations therein as shall be constitutionally made; and to all the acts and ordinances of the United States in Congress assembled, conformable thereto. The inhabitants and settlers in the said territory shall be subject to pay a part of the Federal debts contracted or to be contracted, and a proportional part of the expenses of government to be apportioned on them by Congress, according to the same common rule and measure by which apportionments thereof shall be made on the other states; and the taxes for paying their proportion shall be laid and levied by the authority and direction of the legislatures of the district, or districts, or new states, as in the original states, within the time agreed upon by the United States in Congress assembled. The legislatures of those districts, or new states, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the soil by the United States in Congress assembled, nor with any regulations Congress may find necessary for securing the title in such soil to the bona fide purchasers. No tax shall be imposed on land the property of the United States; and in no case shall nonresident proprietors be taxed higher than residents. The navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and Saint Lawrence and the carrying places between the same shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of the said territory as to the citizens of the United States, and those of any other states that may be admitted into the confederacy, without any tax, impost, or duty therefore.
There shall be formed in the said territory not less than three nor more than five states; and the boundaries of the states, as soon as Virginia shall alter her act of cession and consent to the same, shall become fixed and established as follows, to wit: The western state in the said territory shall be bounded by the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Wabash rivers; a direct line drawn from the Wabash and Post Vincents, due north to the territorial line between the United States and Canada; and by the said territorial line to the Lake of the Woods and Mississippi. The middle state shall be bounded by the said direct line, the Wabash from Post Vincents to the Ohio, by the Ohio, by a direct line drawn due north from the mouth of the Great Miami to the said territorial line, and by the said territorial line. The eastern state shall be bounded by the last-mentioned direct line, the Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the said territorial line: provided, however, and it is further understood and declared, that the boundaries of these three states shall be subject so far to be altered that, if Congress shall hereafter find it expedient, they shall have authority to form one or two states in that part of the said territory which lies north of an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan. And whenever any of the said states shall have sixty thousand free inhabitants therein, such state shall be admitted by its delegates 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 be republican, and in conformity to the principles contained in these articles, and, so far as it can be consistent with the general interest of the confederacy, such admission shall be allowed at an earlier period, and when there may be a less number of free inhabitants in the state than sixty thousand.
There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: provided always that any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original states, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.
Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid that the resolutions of the 23d of April, 1784, relative to the subject of this ordinance, be, and the same are hereby, repealed and declared null and void.
Done by the United States, in Congress assembled, the 13th day of July, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-seven, and of their sovereignty and independence the twelfth.
Northwest Ordinance (1787)
Northwest Ordinance (1787)
Daniel C. Wewers
Excerpt from the Northwest Ordinance
Sec. 13. And, for extending the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, which form the basis whereon these republics, their laws and constitutions are erected; to fix and establish those principles as the basis of all laws, constitutions, and governments, which forever hereafter shall be formed in the said territory: to provide also for the establishment of States, and permanent government therein, and for their admission to a share in the federal councils on an equal footing with the original States, at as early periods as may be consistent with the general interest....
The Northwest Ordinance, approved on July 13, 1787, organized the "Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio" into one district, delineated rules for its interim governance by Congress, and established the process for territories to enter the United States as states. Passed by the Continental Congress as one of the final provisions of the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance was reenacted, with minor modifications, after ratification of the Constitution by the first Congress on August 7, 1789. While the ordinance applied solely to the "Old Northwest"—the area lying west of Pennsylvania, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River to the border with British Canada—it shaped congressional action regarding federal territories long after 1787. Considered one of the most important acts passed by Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as the three most significant founding documents in American history.
Debate over expansion into western territories occupied the new nation in the 1780s, and the Continental Congress passed three separate ordinances for territorial governance during that critical decade. Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Ordinance of 1784, written after a major 1784 Virginia land cession. The act articulated a general statement of democratic principles, recommending the evolution of the territories toward statehood in stages of increasing self-government. The Ordinance of 1784 advocated the division of the region into sixteen new states (with names like Polypotamia and Pelisipia), each possessing the same powers as the original thirteen states. The Ordinance of 1784 also prohibited slavery in the western territories after 1800, but its enforcement met delays for various reasons. In the meantime, the Land Ordinance of 1785 addressed the land-sale issue. It directed that the territory's land be surveyed in six-mile-square townships, each containing thirty-six one-mile square (640 acre) "sections" to be sold at auction for a dollar an acre. The ensuing grid pattern from this legislation still dominates the region's landscape to this day.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 filled the void left by the ineffectual 1784 Ordinance. Originally intended as an amendment to Jefferson's legislation, Massachusetts Representatives Rufus King and Nathan Dane completely redrafted the bill in the final days of Congress's session. The drafting committee also received contributions from Reverend Manasseh Cutler, an agent for the Ohio Company, a group of Massachusetts speculators prepared to purchase five million acres in the territory. Pressured by land speculators anxious to preserve private property on the frontier, the act represented a general movement toward law, order, and stability in the new nation that expressed itself in the simultaneous drafting of the Constitution. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out to a Cincinnati audience in 1859, "Our fathers who made the government, made the ordinance of 1787."
Fourteen preliminary "sections" and six solemn "articles of compact" comprised the text of the Northwest Ordinance. The opening section established one district in the Northwest Territory "for the purposes of temporary government" that Congress might subdivide if it deemed necessary. The second section contained provisions for conveying real property, making wills, and settling estates of persons dying without wills.
The ordinance then outlined a three-stage process for the transition from territorial status to statehood. In the first stage, Congress would appoint a governor, a secretary, and a court of three judges to administer the territory. To achieve its ends, this first-stage legislature of five officials was authorized to "adopt and publish" criminal and civil laws from existing states, as necessary for governance of the territory. The governor would serve a three-year term as commander in chief of the militia and appoint magistrates and other civil officials in the territory. He would also enjoy the power to establish counties, townships, and other civil divisions until the organization of the second-stage legislature, as well as to convene, suspend, or dissolve the general assembly as he saw fit. The governor would even enjoy absolute veto power over acts of the assembly.
Once the district reached a population of five thousand free males of "full age," the governor, an elected lower house, and an appointed legislative council would assume responsibility for administration. Male inhabitants of the territory meeting the property qualifications for voting could elect one representative for every five hundred free males in the district. These representatives would form the lower house of a general assembly and, in conjunction with the governor, nominate members for the legislative council (or upper house/senate). This second-stage legislature could enact any laws necessary for governing the territory not repugnant to the 1787 Ordinance or the Constitution; it also could send one non-voting member to Congress. When the district reached a population of sixty thousand free inhabitants, it entered the third stage of the process. It then could adopt a "republican" state constitution and apply to Congress for full statehood. Upon approval by Congress, the state would enter the federal union "on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever."
The second portion of the ordinance included six "articles of compact between the original states and the people and states in the said territory," to be forever "unalterable, unless by common consent." Similar to the bills of rights included in many contemporary state constitutions, Articles I and II of the ordinance guaranteed freedom of religion, the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, proportionate representation in the legislature, and judicial proceedings under common law. Article III provided for public support of education in the territory and pledged (at least in theory) the "utmost good faith" in relations with Native Americans. Article IV made the territory's inhabitants responsible for their share of the federal debt and government expenses, while Article V established the provisional boundaries of "not less than three nor more than five States," as well as the third-stage threshold of sixty thousand free inhabitants. The sixth and final article prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory, although it did allow for the recovery of fugitive slaves. Despite its lasting fame as the first piece of national legislation to limit the expansion of slavery—Article VI became an icon of the mid-nineteenth-century Free Soil movement—the ordinance contained no enforcement mechanisms, and slavery persisted in parts of the region as late as the 1840s.
The ordinance's blueprint for continental expansion and its provisions for territorial evolution from colonial dependency to equal statehood were perhaps its most important legacies. While the Northwest Territory's relatively short administrative history ended with the admission of Ohio to the United States in 1803, the original grant of territory eventually fashioned four other states: Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), and Wisconsin (1848), as well as part of Minnesota (1858). Altogether, this landmark legislation, establishing the basic framework for U.S. territorial governments, eventually served in related forms in the establishment of thirty-two states, one common-wealth, and one republic. Senator Daniel Webster declared in an 1830 speech, "We are accustomed to praise the lawgivers of antiquity; ... but I doubt whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787." Modern historians might add a degree of caution to Webster's remarks. While many have showered acclaim on a document that married territorial expansion with republican self-government, others have pointed out its tragic consequences for the Native American population that faced decimation and exile in the wake of white settlement of the Northwest Territory.
See also: Southwest Ordinance.
Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Taylor, Robert M., Jr., ed. The Northwest Ordinance, 1787: A Bicentennial Handbook. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1987.
Williams, Frederick D., ed. The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on Its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988.
The Northwest Ordinance was the third of three major land ordinances passed by the Congress convened under the Articles of Confederation (before the ratification of the U.S. Constitution ). The three ordinances also included the Ordinance of 1784 and the Land Ordinance of 1785.) These laws were passed to help manage the lands of the Old Northwest, which were awarded to the United States at the end of the American Revolution (1775–1783)—the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Ordinance of 1784 was drawn up by a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826). It created a system of government for the territory and guaranteed settlers the right to organize themselves into new states. The Land Ordinance of 1785 established the way in which the territory would be measured and divided up for sale to prospective settlers and land speculators. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (one of the final acts passed by the Confederation Congress before it dissolved) set up the process through which settlers could bring their new states into the Union. The ordinance guaranteed settlers the rights of U.S. citizens; established procedures for dealing with Native Americans in the area; allocated money from the sale of land in the territory to be set aside for public schools; and banned slavery north of the Ohio River. It also established that the territory would eventually be divided into no less than three and no more than five states.
Under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, the Northwest Territory was divided into a number of districts, each of which was to be administered by a governor and by judges appointed by Congress. When the white male population of a district reached 5000, the district became a territory. It could then form its own territorial legislature, but its executive and judicial officials were still appointed by Congress. When the population of a territory reached 60,000, it could apply for admission as a state. The Northwest Ordinance established that territory brought into the Union would enter on an equal basis with the original 13 colonies, thus, recently-settled areas were prevented from being treated as inferior to more established regions. Settlers in the new areas were also guaranteed certain rights, such as freedom of religion, which the original colonies did not promise to their citizens. Although he took no steps to free the few slaves already living in the territory, Jefferson added a provision specifically banning slavery from being introduced into the territory.
The Northwest Ordinance also tried to establish the government's official policy toward Native Americans living in the area. It required the government to use its "utmost good faith" toward the Indians, and it promised that "their lands and their 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." The "just and lawful wars" clause was ignored more often than it was honored. In a series of wars ranging over 40 years, from Little Turtle's War (1791–1794) to the Black Hawk War (1832), Native Americans were driven from the Old Northwest and their lands were seized and sold to white settlers.
The economic impact of the Northwest Ordinance was very broad. By making the process of statehood relatively easy, settlers in the Old Northwest were encouraged to ship their produce to American ports rather than to more accessible British, French, and Spanish ports on the Great Lakes or lower Mississippi River. By banning slavery, the area was reserved for free labor. Finally, by allowing Native Americans to be deprived of their lands through warfare, the Northwest Ordinance set a precedent for settler-Native American conflict that lasted over a century.
See also: Black Hawk War, Land Ordinance of 1785, Native American Policy, Old Northwest
Gates, Paul W. History of Public Land Law Development. Washington, DC: Wm. W. Gaunt and Sons, 1968.
Morris, Richard B. The Forging of the Union, 1781– 1789. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.
Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: The Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
in providing for orderly development and eventual statehood, the land ordinances may well have been the most significant legislation of the confederation-period congress.
james kirby martin, professor of history, university of houston
Northwest Ordinance (1787)
NORTHWEST ORDINANCE (1787)
This congressional enactment, which applied to the territory northwest of the Ohio River, was the most significant accomplishment of the United States under the articles of confederation. In effect the ordinance provided for self-government under constitutional law in the territories, thus "solving" a colonial problem by avoiding it. The pattern for government, which subsequently was extended to other western territories, allowed for growth from a system of congressional government to statehood and admission to the Union "on an equal footing with the original States, in all respects whatever.…" As soon as a district reached a population of 5,000 males of voting age, each one possessing a fifty-acre freehold was entitled to vote for representatives to a general assembly. The assembly had authority to elect a delegate to Congress with the right to debate but not to vote. When the population reached 60,000, the territory could apply for admission as a state, on condition that it had a republican form of government and a state constitution. Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin were formed out of the Northwest Territory; this ordinance established a model for territorial governance and the admission of other states in the American West.
The ordinance was the first federal document to contain a bill of rights. To extend "the fundamental principles of civil and religious liberty, " Congress provided articles that were to have constitutional status, remaining "forever … unalterable" except by common consent. These articles guaranteed that the inhabitants of a territory should always be entitled to the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, representative government, and judicial proceedings "according to the course of the common law " (in effect, a provision for due process of law.) As an extra safeguard the articles encapsulated a provision from magna carta by insuring that no person should be deprived of liberty or property "but by the judgment of his peers, or the law of the land." In addition, the articles protected the right to bail except in capital cases, enjoined that all fines should be "moderate," and prohibited cruel or unusual punishment. Another article that provided a federal precedent for a similar provision in the bill of rights of the Constitution of the United States dealt with eminent domain : no person's property could be taken except in a public exigency, when he must be fully compensated for its value. The contract clause of the Constitution also originated in this ordinance: one article declared that no law should ever be made or have force that in any manner interfered with or affected existing private contracts made in good faith and without fraud. Other articles encouraged "schools and the means of education" and protected Indian lands and liberties. One provision of the ordinance had the effect of reducing sex discrimination in land ownership and preventing the introduction of the law of primogeniture; it ordained that the property of anyone dying intestate (without a will) should be distributed in equal parts to all children or next of kin. The ordinance also protected the religious sentiments and modes of worship of all orderly persons, without exception, and in a precedent-making clause declared, "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude" in the Northwest Territory or states formed from it. The ordinance, which was probably drafted in the main by rufus king and nathan dane, remains one of the most constructive and influential legislative acts in American history.
Leonard W. Levy
Philbrick, Francis S. 1965 The Rise of the New West, 1754–1830. Pages 120–133. New York: Harper & Row.
The Northwest Ordinance, officially known as the Ordinance of 1787, created the Northwest Territory, organized its governing structure, and established the procedures by which territories were admitted as states to the Union. It was derived from a proposal by thomas jefferson concerning the formation of states from the territory acquired as a result of the Revolutionary War. The territory stretched from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River to the area around the Great Lakes and encompassed what is today Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The reaction to Jefferson's proposal was mixed, and it was only when the Ohio Company of Associates expressed interest in purchasing the land that Congress took action.
The ordinance, passed by Congress in July 1787, was significant in providing a framework for the admission of territories into the Union as states. A government composed of a governor, a secretary, and three judges appointed by Congress was established in the region north of the Ohio River. When the population of the territory reached 5,000, the inhabitants were authorized to elect a legislature and to be represented in the House of Representatives by a nonvoting member. When a designated area of the territory had 60,000 residents, that area could seek to become a state by complying with the requirements of the ordinance. Congress required that the territory be divided into at least three but not more than five states. Five states were eventually carved out of the territory.
Aside from the provisions concerning statehood, the Northwest Ordinance had two distinct prohibitions. There was to be no slavery within the boundaries of the territory, and no law could be enacted that would impair a contract.
The Northwest Ordinance was important because it provided the foundation for the creation of later territories within the Union and established the process by which territories became states.
Williams, Frederick D., ed. 1989. The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on Its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.
Onuf, Peter S. 1987. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.