Land Ordinance of 1785 Facilitates Public Schools

To the members of the Continental Congress, the land ceded to the new United States of America was an opportunity. Remember, until the Constitution was ratified in 1788, under the Articles of Confederation, the Continental Congress, which preferred to be called the Congress of the Confederation, could not levy taxes, or adjudicate disputes between citizens or states.

Passing the Land Ordinance of 1784 proved the Congress of the Confederation could establish frameworks to lay the foundation for the country’s growth. Understand that that in the Northwest Territories, the British had not left their forts in direct violation of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and worse, they were arming the Native Americans and inciting them to resist settlers moving west.

Protecting the settlers required an army which required money which the Congress of the Confederation did not have. It was forced to ask the states to “donate” money to pay for an army, something they were reluctant to do.

A committee of five men – Thomas Jefferson representing Virginia; Hugh Williamson from North Carolina; David Howell; member from Rhode Island; Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts; and Jacob Read, one of South Carolina’s representatives – was created to make recommendations. The result was the Land Ordinance of 1785.

Since the land given to the U.S. was poorly, to be kind, surveyed, the first recommendation was to set standards on how the land would be surveyed. Western Ohio was chosen as the first territory in which townships would be created from six-mile by six-mile pieces of land called a section. Each township would be a square of 36 sections and the language in the Land Ordinance of 1785 provides the methodology of how surveyors would measure the land down to the individual lot.

What was unique about the Land Ordinance of 1785 was that it required that one section, i.e., a six-by-six-mile square near the center of each township would be set aside on which public schools would be created. Schools would be open to ALL children living in the township.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 stated that additional lands within each township could be set aside for institutions of higher learning, i.e., colleges and universities established by the states.

Another committee recommendation was to create a position in the government called the Geographer of the United States. His sole purpose was to manage surveying the land given to us by England. The recommendation became a reality when an act passed in May 1786 created the office of the Surveyor General of the United States.

What is interesting is that at the time, there were two land management “systems” – Southern and New England. Even though a majority of the five-man committee were Southerners, they adopted the New England system which Massachusetts, New Hampshire Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York and its territory called Vermont. (See 7/19/20 Blog Post – The Republic of Vermont vs. the State of New York – ) had been using to survey and sell land and fund education since early in the 17th Century.

Underlying the need to create the Land Ordinance of 1785 was money. The Congress of the Federation limped along on what money the states donated. By selling land, the Congress of the Confederation could raise funds to pay for an army, conduct foreign policy, etc., etc.

What is also unique about the Land Ordinance of 1785 is that the money from land sales would come to the central government, not to the states. It also established the principle that public education for ALL U.S. citizens was the responsibility of the state and local governments.

Later, once the new Federal government was established under the Constitution, the Land Ordinance of 1785 was challenged several times Each time, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in favor of the provisions of the legislation which governed U.S. land policy until the Homestead Act was passed in 1862.

Image is how the Land Ordinance of 1785 segmented land into townships down to the individual lot.


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