The Northwest Ordinance

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The Northwest Ordinance

An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, was unanimously passed by the Continental Congress on July 13, 1787. It is often called the second-most important law passed by the Continental Congress, after the Declaration of Independence; indeed, the National Archives has listed it as eighth most important in its list of the 100 most important documents in U.S. history. The ordinance set the precedent for the admission of new states on equal footing with those already existing. Moreover, by banning slavery west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River, it established the yet-to-be formed state of Ohio as the boundary between free and slave states, and portended the wobbly minuet over slavery that culminated almost a century later in the Civil War.


Perhaps no Founding Father is as puzzling as Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's many magnificent writings on freedom contrast sharply with the fact that he trafficked in human beings. Moreover, he generally thought Africans, free or enslaved, to be inferior to whites. As a slave owner, he professed disdain for the institution of slavery. In a number of his writings, he acknowledged that slavery would eventually be the cause of great misery for the United States, and that the black man would one day be free.

Having seen his magnificent diatribe against slavery stricken from the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson once again addressed the issue in the Territorial Ordinance of 1784, written while he was a member of the Continental Congress and chairman of the committee charged with developing a plan for the settlement and governance of the Old Northwest until such time it could be divided into states. In it he wrote that after 1800 neither slavery nor involuntary servitude could exist in any of the states carved from the territory unless for conviction of punishment for crimes. The passage was deleted from the ordinance.

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

Great Britain had acquired the area in question from France with the passage of the Treaty of Paris in 1763. In an effort to appease the Native American tribes that had been pushed ever westward, the so-called Ohio Country was closed to settlement by whites by the Proclamation of 1763. The states of Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York had competing land claims over the area, and Great Britain and Spain were also contesting ownership. Ignoring the proclamation's borderline, settlers began trickling into the region, and it was not long before the trickle turned into a flood. The Continental Congress realized that a system had to be developed to protect the settlers and establish a system of effective government. This became especially important after the United States acquired the territory from Great Britain with the Treaty of Paris in 1783 that marked the end of the Revolutionary War. Virginia was the first to cede its claim to the land, in the Virginia Act of Cessation. In 1784 Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) suggested that the other states with competing land claims give up those claims, and that as many as seventeen states be created. Moreover, he wrote that after 1800 slavery would be banned from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River and from Spanish Florida to British Canada. Congress approved his Territorial Ordinance of 1784, but never put it into effect. Jefferson's plan, however, did serve as a template for the Northwest Ordinance, enacted three years later.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 provided first for the abolition of state claims in the territory. A civil government under the jurisdiction of Congress was required in order to create territories. The territorial governors served for three years, and the territorial secretary served four years. Also, three judges with no fixed term limits were appointed. Once the population of a territory reached 5,000, a legislature could be formed, and when a territory had 60,000 inhabitants it could petition for statehood. The Enabling Act of 1802 spelled out the details of the process for admitting new states; newly created states were to be the equal of already established ones.

Crucial to the development of the Ohio Country and subsequent westward expansion was the development of civil liberties. Virtually all free white males were granted suffrage. Citizens in the region had the rights of habeas corpus, jury trials, a ban on ex post facto laws, and property rights. Although the ordinance says "Religion, morality, and knowledge … were necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind," settlers were guaranteed freedom of religious worship.

Education was important, too. The ordinance encouraged the development of schools and the promotion of education, although the federal government did not carve out a role for itself in this endeavor. This section of the document, however, can be said to anticipate the late-nineteenth-century development of landgrant colleges.

On the surface, the rights of Native Americans appeared to be protected, as the Northwest Ordinance stated that "the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed." But Native Americans did not recognize post-Revolutionary War treaties that ceded land located north of the Ohio River to the United States, and they had little confidence that whites would deal with them in good faith. The Shawnee and Miami leaders, Blue Jacket (c.1743–c.1810) and Little Turtle (c.1747–1812), respectively, developed a confederation to stop further white settlement in the area. Before President George Washington (1732–1799) appointed General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796) the commander of a new army, more than 800 American soldiers had been killed. The two tribes were defeated in the so-called Northwest Indian War, and whites' settlement of the region resumed.

Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory, unless for punishment of crimes. It also allowed for the return of fugitive slaves. Surprisingly, delegates from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia voted to pass the Ordinance. Despite the article, slavery did exist in the territory because the Ordinance applied only to the so-called "Old Northwest"; the region south of the Ohio River saw the expansion of slavery. Furthermore, the Ordinance guaranteed to the French inhabitants already present, some of whom had brought slaves with them, that "their laws and customs now in force among them, relative to the descent and conveyance of property," would remain unmolested. Finally, some historians have suggested that the wording of Article 6 prohibited the importation of new slaves into the area, but left those already there in bondage. Thus slaves and their descendants continued to be bought, sold, and bequeathed in wills. Finally, in 1803, Ohio, the first state carved out of the territory, legalized indentured servitude, a condition that was little removed from slavery. Yet it is important to note that by prohibiting slavery in the Old Northwest, the federal government did indeed seek to restrict the spread of slavery.

The importance of the Northwest Ordinance cannot be overstated. Its scheme of republican government has stood the test of time in the United States. Moreover, it set in motion westward expansion and instituted a survey system in which states used a uniform set of coordinates that ensured uniformed squares of property. Indeed, the states of the upper Midwest for the most part conform to this pattern. Finally, the civil liberties presented in the Northwest Ordinance were later enshrined in the Bill of Rights.


Cayton, Andrew R. L. The Frontier Republic: Ideology and Politics in the Ohio Country, 1780–1825. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1986.

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

                                   Marilyn K. Howard

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The Northwest Ordinance

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