About the Northwest Ordinance
In 1787 the Northwest Ordinance established a fair and orderly procedure through which areas of the Northwest Territory could achieve the equality of statehood and self-government.
The Northwest Ordinance was the fulfillment of the visionary ideas expressed by the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. By demanding that the original 13 states cede back most of their 'claimed territory' and establish firm state borders, Congressional power was established, thus creating a legal system for equity among states. It established specific procedures for the territories to achieve statehood and guaranteed their residents all the same rights as existing states. It encouraged funding of public schools by the sale of federal lands. Slavery was banned, (because Virginia, wanting to discourage migration of her citizens into the frontier, suggested that slavery be prohibited in the new states), however, federal law allowed any new state to legalize slavery by a vote, and both Indiana and Illinois almost did.
Michigan was first a part of the Northwest Territory, then as a corner of the Indiana Territory, and from 1805 to 1837 the Michigan Territory that grew to extend beyond to the Missouri River.
The Northwest Ordinance provides a good example of how widely held ideas, values, and beliefs of one historical period become formalized as part of our social structure. The struggle over political power, central government versus vesting power in the states, the struggle over balancing the power in the central government throughout all states, both old and new, and the struggle over the slavery issue, were all issues that The Northwest Ordinance tried to settle. Following is the complete text of the Northwest Ordinance.
July 13, 1787 An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio.
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.
Be it ordained by the authority aforesaid, That the estates, both of resident and nonresident proprietors in the said territory, dying intestate, shall descent 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 parents' 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, St. 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 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 a common 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 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 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.
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 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, 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 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 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:
Art. 1. 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.
Art. 2. The inhabitants of the said territory shall always be entitled to the benefits of the writ 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 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, bona fide, and without fraud, previously formed.
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 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 lands 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 St. 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 therefor.
Art. 5. 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 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.
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 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 23rd of April, 1784, relative to the subject of this ordinance, be, and the same are hereby repealed and declared null and void.
To understand the Northwest Ordinance, you have to understand how the colonists divided up the land. Below is a map that show the land each of the thirteen colonies claimed as their own.
Before the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies staked out huge tracts of land. For example Virginia's colony stretched all the way into Michigan. After the Revolutionary War, these colonies became states. Although some were reluctant, they agreed that more, and smaller states made more sense. They agreed to establish firm and legal borders and to give back a lot of the unsettled land. The act of giving back to the government is called "to cede". By 1790 this is what the map of America looked like.
Thousands of people were immigrating to America. They needed a plan to describe how newly settled areas could become states, how they would be governed, and a guarantee of their rights. The plan was created was called the Northwest Ordinance.
The Northwest Territory was the area of the American frontier north of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes, east of the Mississippi, and west of Pennsylvania (present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan). These lands were claimed by existing states until 1780, at which time the states ceded these territories to the central government.
In 1787, the Congress of the United States, acting under the Articles of Confederation, passed the Northwest Ordinance. This action was the outstanding achievement of government under the Articles, a government which seemed otherwise inept and impotent. Historians today rank the Northwest Ordinance as a basic document in the American heritage, one that ranks in importance only behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787.
The Northwest Ordinance provided for the government of territory north and west of the Ohio River. It guaranteed:
- eventual statehood on equal terms with other states
- not less than three nor more than five states were to be carved out of the area
- established a process for moving through stages of territorial government to petition for statehood
- reaffirmed a system for dividing land that was set forth in the Land Ordinance of 1785
- contained six "articles of compact, between the original States and the people and States" of the Northwest Territory that guaranteed civil liberties and rights to the inhabitants of the territory
The Northwest Ordinance included a plan by which a territory could advance gradually to statehood, on equal terms with all other states of the United States. This plan involved three stages.
As an official Territory, it got a governor, secretary and three judges that were appointed by Congress to govern the territory. Their jobs were to settle disputes, and decide what laws already adopted by the other 13 states would be appropriate and beneficial for the Territory to adopt. This was not considered self-government, but more like an oligarchy.
When the Territory reached 5,000 free white males (males who owned at least 50 acres of land), the free white males could elect a Territorial House of Representatives. This House of Representatives then could nominate 10 candidates to a Legislative Council. Of the ten candidates, Congress selected 5 to be members of the Legislative Council. Along with the Governor appointed by Congress, the Territorial House of Representatives and the legislative council could make the laws for the Territory, if they all agreed to the ideas unanimously.
When the total population reached 60,000, the Territory could apply for admission into the Union on terms of full equality with the older states. The Ordinance removed the danger of colonial rebellion because it assured that each Territories had the right of equal participation in the national government.
The Northwest Ordinance divided the Old Northwest into three areas, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It also stipulated that the Territory could be divided into five states eventually, which of course is what happened.
The terms of the Northwest Ordinance were so attractive that pioneers poured into the new territory. In 1788, one of the first groups of settlers founded the town of Marietta, Ohio. Thousands of families followed the first settlers in the westward movement. The territory eventually became five states--Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The territory included what is now the part of Minnesota east of the Mississippi River.
The Northwest Ordinance provided more than a plan of government. It laid the groundwork for social and political democracy in the West as described in the six "Articles of Compact." A compact is an agreement between two parties, which may not be broken without mutual consent of those who made it. The Northwest Ordinance said that the following six 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." The Articles of Compact provided civil liberties and rights to the people; and that government officials may not legally take away these rights or liberties.
Article I provided freedom of religion to the Territory.
Article II guaranteed the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus requires officials to bring a person whom they have arrested and held in custody before a judge in a court of law. Officials who are holding the prisoner must convince the judge that there are lawful reasons for holding the prisoner. If the judge finds their reasons for holding the prisoner unlawful, then the court frees the suspect. The writ of habeas corpus is a great protection for individuals against government officials who might want to jail them only because they belong to unpopular groups or criticize the government.
Several other rights are guaranteed to people accused of crimes, such as trial by jury, protection against cruel and unusual punishment, and prevention of excessive bail as a condition of release from jail while awaiting a trial. Finally, Article II says that persons are protected against government acts that would deprive them of life, liberty, or property without due process (fair and proper legal procedures) and that would deprive them of property without fair compensation.
Article III stated the importance of schools and education for all people. This article also stated that the Indian people of the Northwest Territory should be treated fairly.
Article IV indicated several responsibilities of territories and states, which include the obligation of paying a fair share of taxes, of respecting and abiding by the Articles of Confederation (later the Constitution of the United States), and of perpetual membership in the Federal Union.
Article V provided for admission into the Union of not less than three nor more than five states from the Northwest Territory. These states "shall be admitted" into 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." Of course, people in the territory seeking statehood had the responsibility of following exactly all provisions of the Northwest Ordinance.
Article VI banned slavery or involuntary servitude in the Territory and banned slavery in newly formed states unless slavery was unanimously voted for by the citizens of the state.
As more settlers moved into the region, the Northwest Territory was divided. In 1800, the western part of the region became the Territory of Indiana, with William Henry Harrison as governor. The Michigan Territory was created in 1805, and the Illinois Territory in 1809. Ohio became a state in 1803, Indiana in 1816, Illinois in 1818, Michigan in 1837, and Wisconsin in 1848.
The Northwest Ordinance incorporated many ideas that American colonists believed were right and fair, even if they were unusual for the times. It took great wisdom on the authors' part to refrain from creating a situation that would benefit them and their own states to the detriment of the new states. The thoughtful and fair way that the Northwest Ordinance enabled territories to advance to statehood virtually assured that the process would be smooth. Even the issue of slavery, so contentious and emotional, was forced to the surface as it needed to be. The values and beliefs of many people are reflected in the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance. Those ideas are now a part of the thought processes of Americans who enjoy the economic bounty and personal liberties of this great republic.
Timeline of the Northwest Oordinance and Surrounding Events
January 2, 1778.
Governor Patrick Henry of Virginia wrote to Colonel George Rogers Clark to instruct him in a mission to Kentucky and lands north and west of the Ohio River. By carrying out this mission, Clark and his men kept the British from occupying Kentucky during the American War of Independence and enabled the United States to claim land north and west of the Ohio River at the end of the war.
October 10, 1780.
The Continental Congress passed a "Resolution on Public Lands" saying that land ceded to the United States by particular states would be settled and formed eventually into separate states.
March 1, 1781.
All thirteen states of the United States of America ratified (approved) the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the new country.
September 3, 1783.
The United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the War of Independence. The British government recognized the sovereignty (independence) of the United States, and the Treaty established the boundaries of the new nation.
December 20, 1783.
The legislature of Virginia passed the Virginia Act of Cession, which yielded the state's claims to lands in the western part of the country to the United States.
April 23, 1784.
Congress approved the Territorial Ordinance of 1784, written by Thomas Jefferson, to serve as a plan for temporary government of the western territories. Although it was never put into effect, this plan influenced the content of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance.
May 20, 1785.
Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785, which was a plan for dividing and selling land in the western territories.
May 9, 1786.
A committee of Congress, headed by James Monroe of Virginia, made a report about a plan for governance of the Northwest Territory that would be the basis for the subsequent Ordinance of 1787.
September 18, 1786.
Monroe's committee on government in the Northwest Territory was reorganized; William Johnson of Connecticut became chairman, and Nathan Dane of Massachusetts joined the committee. Dane made important contributions to the Ordinance of 1787 and was the compiler of the final draft of the ordinance.
February 21, 1787.
Congress approved a convention in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.
May 25, 1787.
A quorum of delegates from seven states arrived in Philadelphia to start the meeting known as the Constitutional Convention.
July 13, 1787.
While the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia, the Congress of the Confederation enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which was a plan for governing the territory north and west of the Ohio River. Freedom of religion, right to trial by jury, and public education were asserted as rights of the people. Slavery was banned.
September 17, 1787.
Each of the twelve state delegations voted to approve the final copy of the Constitution, which had been written by participants in the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. The Convention ended.
September 20, 1787.
Congress received the proposed Constitution from the Philadelphia Convention.
October 5, 1787.
Congress selected a governor and other officers for the Northwest Territory according to the terms of the Ordinance of 1787. The first governor was Arthur St. Clair.
April 7, 1788.
Veterans of the War of Independence founded Marietta, at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingam rivers. This was the first permanent settlement of the Northwest territory after it was organized under the Ordinance of 1787.
June 21, 1788.
New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution. According to Article VII of the Constitution, nine states had to ratify the Constitution to make it the law of the land.
April 1, 1789.
The House of Representatives, elected under the new Constitution, was organized, with thirty of its fifty-nine members present.
April 6, 1789.
The Senate met, with nine of its twenty-two members present. As required by the Constitution, senators counted ballots that had been cast by presidential electors and declared George Washington first president of the United States.
April 30, 1789.
George Washington was inaugurated as first president of the United States under the constitution of 1787.
September 25, 1789.
Congress approved twelve proposed amendments to the Constitution, which would provide certain civil liberties and rights to the people.
December 15, 1791.
Virginia was the eleventh state to ratify ten of the constitutional amendments proposed by Congress. Three fourths of the states had now approved them, as required by Article V of the Constitution. These ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.
May 7, 1800.
A law was enacted by the federal government that established the Indiana Territory.
February 19, 1803.
Ohio became the first state formed from the Northwest Territory. Ohio entered the Federal Union as the seventeenth state.
January 11, 1805.
An act of Congress created the Territory of Michigan.
February 3, 1809.
An act of Congress created the Territory of Illinois.
April 20, 1836.
An act of Congress created the Territory of Wisconsin.
January 22, 1837.
Michigan was admitted to the Federal Union as the twenty-sixth state.
May 29, 1848.
Wisconsin was admitted to the Federal Union as the thirtieth state
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