The Northwest Ordinance

THE GREAT LAND ORDINANCES: The Confederation's Major Achievement


During the American Revolution the Americans resolved not to treat their territories as colonies. Following the war Congress sold millions of acres of land to large companies, but those companies had trouble attracting settlers. Congress therefore realized that some form of control was necessary in the territories that were not yet states.

Thomas Jefferson’s Ordinance of 1784 stated that when a territory had a population equal to that of the smallest state it might apply for admission. Jefferson’s Ordinance also provided for the following:

  • Towns in the territory were to be divided into 36 1-square-mile lots of 640 acres, to be sold at $1 per acre.
  • Income from one 36th section was to be provided for schools, which reflected Jefferson’s commitment to public education as essential to democracy.
  • The Ohio and Scioto land companies were formed; Marietta, Ohio, was established as the first town in the new territory. (Marietta remains proud of that distinction.)

Land Ordinance of 1785 provided details for land surveys and sales, square patterns, 6x6 miles, 36 sections of 640 acres, $1 each minimum, sold at auction. (Speculators were able to take advantage of the law.)

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Following the Ordinances of 1784 and 1785, which started the process, in 1787 Congress issued the Northwest Ordinance, which provided government for the area north and west of the Ohio River, the states that now are Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Some historians have claimed that the principles established in the Northwest Ordinance are so important that they actually form part of the Constitution. The reason is that the Northwest Ordinance promised a republican form of government for inhabitants of those territories. It guaranteed that residents in the territories of the United States would not be treated as second class citizens, and that when they were eventually admitted as states, they would enter under the same terms as those states that were already part of the union. The principle behind the Northwest Ordinance was carried into the Constitution in Article IV, Section 4, which states: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”

The Northwest Ordinance:

  • Replaced the Ordinance of 1784. Territorial governors were provided for, as well as a secretary and 3 judges appointed by Congress.
  • Included a Bill of Rights: Freedom of worship, trial by jury, free speech, habeas corpus and proportional representation
  • Provided for public education. This was the first national education law passed anywhere in the world.
  • Provided that a population of 60,000 qualified the territory for statehood.
  • When there were 5,000 free adult males in each territory, they might elect a bicameral legislature.
  • The territory could make up 3-5 states with 60,000 population required for admission. Eventually they became the five states mentioned above: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
  • New states would be admitted “on an equal footing” with the old.
  • Slavery was prohibited.

It is considered a tragedy that the anti-slavery provision was not extended to later territories. If so, the only slave states would have been the original 6: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. In the other 7 original states, provisions were made for the abolition of slavery, either immediately or over time.

Provisions for Admission to Statehood for New Territories was, aside from winning the war, the greatest achievement of the Confederation. Gradually all western lands were ceded to government and quickly became states. The Indian inhabitants were unfortunately forced to move farther westward.

Text of the Northwest Ordinance

Federal Age Home | Updated October 26, 2013