The Precedent Setting Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Four years after the peace treaty with Great Britain was signed, the Continental Congress, which now preferred to be known as the Congress of the Confederation of the United States, passed the Northwest Ordnance on July 13th, 1787. It was intended to provide guidance to citizens on how a section of the new United States known as the Northwest Territory would be governed.

The Northwest Territory consisted of what is now the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Note that the ordinance did not cover the rest of the land given to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris, i.e., the British territory from the Atlantic Coast to the east bank of the Mississippi River and north of the Florida border. In modern terms, the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and West Virginia.

From a legislative perspective, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was an attempt to cover more issues than two acts passed earlier. One was the Land Ordinance of 1784, which simply stated that states would one day be formed from the land given to the U.S. by the Treaty of Paris. When it was passed, the Continental Congress faced several major issues. One, it had no means of controlling the westward migration of U.S. citizens since there was no central government with the power to enforce any laws. Two, the British had not left the forts in the Northwest Territory that they were supposed to abandon under the Treaty of Paris. Three, Congress was broke since it had no power to levy taxes. Four, settlers were being killed by Native Americans who were, to put it mildly, not happy that settlers were occupying their land.

Faced with this, the Continental Congress passed a sequel called the Land Ordinance of 1785. It established the process of how the government would sell land to settlers. The law’s intent was to gain control of the westward movement of the U.S.’s growing population and raise money.

Again, the laws of 1784 and 1785 didn’t have the desired effect so the Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It is important to note that when this act was passed, the Constitutional Convention was literally down the street, drafting the document that would ultimately govern this country once it was ratified in 1788.

In this far-reaching piece of legislation, the members of the Continental Congress did the following with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787:

  1. By authorizing the government to sell land to a settler and give the new owner title to the land in perpetuity until he or she sold, the ordinance created the first guarantee of freedom of contract in the U.S.
  2. Abolished individual state claims to the land given to the U.S. by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris. This gave the power to determine the boundaries of new states to the Continental Congress.
  3. Outlined a process and criteria for admission of new states.
  4. Required new “townships” and states to set aside land for schools.
  5. Required newly settled lands establish “territorial” governments with representatives who meet in “general assemblies,” elect governors and establish judicial systems.
  6. Established rights such as habeas corpus, trial by jury, and banned ex post facto laws. Many of the rights established in the ordinance found their way into the Bill of Rights.
  7. Outlawed slavery throughout the Northwest Territory.
  8. Required the new territories set aside land on which the Native Americans could live and thrive.

In the Northwest Ordnance of 1787, the Continental Congress laid out the concepts of how the U.S. could grow and govern itself. Once the Constitution was ratified, the First Congress of the United States made several minor modifications to the Northwest Ordnance of 1787. It passed as the Northwest Ordnance of 1789. Under the Constitution, there was now a Federal government that could carry out the ordinance’s intent.

Image is a map of the Northwest Territory covered by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the years the states were admitted to the United States.

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