Enacted by the Confederation Congress on July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance established a plan for governing the Northwest Territory. Modified several times, the document later served as a blueprint for adding new states to the Union as the United States expanded westward.
Continental Congress Struggles with Western Lands
During the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress (May 10, 1775–March 1, 1781) acted as the provisional government representing the thirteen American colonies. Between July 1776 and November 1777, Congress struggled to establish a more formal central government representing all the colonies. As delegates debated the scope and scale of a federal government, one of the major sticking points was the disposition of lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The original charters of some colonies (known as “landless”) confined their sovereignty to areas defined by specific borders. Other colonies (known as “landed”) claimed that their reach extended to the western edge of the continent. Unable to reach an agreement, Congress ignored the dispute when it passed the Articles of Confederation on November 15, 1777. Instead, the delegates urged the landed colonies to cede their western land claims to the newly created federal government; most of them did.
Virginia Cedes Western Lands
By February 1779, twelve of the colonies had ratified the Articles of Confederation, but the document required unanimous consent to become law. The lone holdout, Maryland, did not ratify until March 1, 1781, after Virginia became the last state to relinquish its claims on lands north and west of the Ohio River. Following Maryland’s ratification, Congress, rather than the separate states, held dominion over the western lands pending the outcome of the War for Independence.
On October 19, 1781, British Lieutenant-General Charles Cornwallis surrendered his command to George Washington and the Continental Army at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington’s victory brought a successful end to major hostilities in the Revolutionary War. Following months of negotiations in Paris, representatives from the United States and Great Britain drafted a treaty on November 30, 1782, officially ending the war. Signed by dignitaries from both countries on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Paris formally recognized American independence.
The treaty also ceded all the land east of the Mississippi River, north of Florida, and south of Canada to the United States (excluding the City of New Orleans). The acquisition of the new territory presented the Confederation Congress with the opportunity to raise much-needed revenues by selling land to settlers eager to cross the Appalachian Mountains. With that opportunity, however, came the challenges of appeasing native groups who also claimed the land, and removing white squatters who lived there with no legal claims.
To address these opportunities and challenges, the Confederation Congress enacted three major acts between 1784 and 1787.
Ordinance of 1784
On April 23, 1784, the Confederation Congress (March 1, 1781–March 4, 1789) passed an act known as the Ordinance of 1784 outlining a systematic means for incorporating the new lands into the Union. The most far-reaching of the many policies outlined in the act was the decision that when a sufficient number of male settlers populated large parcels of the new lands, Congress would empower them to form republican governments and apply to enter the Union as new states on equal footing with the original thirteen states.
Although Congress never put the plan into effect, many of the act’s provisions formed the basic tenets of legislation that impacted the settlement and governing of the new territory.
Land Ordinance of 1785
Eager to raise necessary revenues for the new federal government, Congress quickly turned its attention to surveying and selling western lands. On May 20, 1785, Congress adopted “An ORDINANCE for ascertaining the Mode of disposing of LANDS in the WESTERN TERRITORY,” commonly known as the Land Ordinance of 1785. The act mandated the establishment of the position of geographer of the United States. Congress charged the geographer with overseeing an orderly and uniform survey of lands north and west of the Ohio River ceded by individual states to the United States, and which had been purchased from the Indian inhabitants.
Among its many provisions, the law stipulated that the surveyors use a rectangular system based upon parallels and meridians to subdivide the region prior to federal land sales. The bill also established six-mile-square townships as the basic unit of land in the area. It further subdivided each township into thirty-six lots comprising 640 acres. Finally, the law outlined provisions for the sale of land to settlers eager to populate the region, which was by then commonly known as the Northwest Territory.
As settlers populated the Northwest Territory, they began petitioning Congress to provide a plan for self-government in the region. Congress addressed their concerns in early 1786 by forming a committee, headed by James Monroe of Virginia, to study the matter. On May 9, 1786, the committee presented a plan for governance to Congress.
On September 18, 1786, Congress reorganized Monroe’s committee, naming William Johnson of Connecticut as the new chair and adding Nathan Dane of Massachusetts. As the committee refined the original plan over the winter, Dane added a last-minute provision prohibiting slavery in the Northwest Territory. Dane’s proposal made it into the final version of the committee’s report, which Rufus King (also of Massachusetts) and Dane drafted. The adoption of the anti-slavery proposal surprised even Dane. He later noted in a letter to King on July 16, 1787, after Congress enacted the committee’s plan, “When I drew the Ordinance (which passed, a few words excepted, as I originally formed it,) I had no idea the states would agree to the sixth article, prohibiting slavery. . .”
Johnson’s committee presented its report to Congress on April 26, 1787. The delegates considered and debated the proposed bill during the spring and summer. On July 9, they referred the proposal to a new committee for fine-tuning. That committee reported a final bill back to Congress two days later. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787,” more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance.
Following the ratification of the United States Constitution, the U.S. Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance, with slight modifications, on August 7, 1789.
The major provisions of the Northwest Ordinance addressed four central concerns regarding the settlement and governance of the Northwest Territory.
- First, they established a three-stage process for carving new states out of the area northwest of the Ohio River, starting with a territorial period governed by a congressionally appointed governor, secretary, and three judges in stage one. Stage two authorized inhabitants of the territory to elect a general assembly (legislature) and to send a non-voting delegate to the Confederation Congress when the population reached 5,000 free males. Finally, when the population reached 60,000 free males, Congress empowered the general assembly to draft a constitution and apply for membership in the federal Union on equal footing with the original states.
- Second, the document created a bill of rights that guaranteed religious freedom, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, representation of the people in the legislature, immunity from cruel and unusual punishment, the sanctity of contracts, and the safety of personal property.
- Third, the ordinance forbade slavery in the territory except as a punishment of crimes after being duly convicted. However, the document mandated the return of fugitive slaves who escaped into the territory from other states where slavery was legal.
- Finally, the document affirmed the “utmost good faith” towards the Indians, proclaimed that the Indians’ “lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent,” and decreed that the “property, rights, and liberty” of Indians “shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.” These provisions were generally ignored or circumvented as white settlers began driving Native Americans off their lands as early as the 1790s.
On October 5, 1787, Congress appointed Arthur St. Clair as the first governor and filled the other offices for the Northwest Territory designated in the Northwest Ordinance.
After ratification of the United States Constitution, the first U.S. Congress affirmed the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance (with slight changes) on August 7, 1789, by enacting a new bill entitled “An Act to provide for the Government of the Territory Northwest of the river Ohio.” That bill created the pathway for the eventual creation of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota.
The Northwest Ordinance and its modified 1789 version established a blueprint for the formation of new states as the United States expanded west. Although the federal government later enacted several laws regarding westward expansion, they all embraced the principle that future states would enter the Union on equal footing with the existing states.
The Northwest Ordinance further impacted the nation’s history in a way not anticipated by the Confederation Congress. The prohibition of slavery in section fourteen, article six of the document, created a haven for abolitionists. The Free Soil Party and, later, the fledgling Republican Party took root in the Northwest Territory, leading to the emergence of a relatively obscure politician from Illinois—Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s election to the U.S. presidency in 1860 intensified the sectional divide over slavery in America, spawning the Civil War.