Northwest Ordinance (American Indians Ready Reference)
Article abstract: Although it was considered the greatest achievement of the Confederation Congress because it provided terms for the creation of new states in the Old Northwest, the ordinance set a tragic precedent by denying Indian rights.
By the Peace of Paris with Britain (1783), the United States acquired a vast inland empire bounded by the Appalachians, the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico. The task of disposing of this territory fell to the government as it was organized under the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789). Conflicting claims of states, settlers, land companies, and American Indians confused the issue. Lands south of the Ohio River were settled separately from those north of it. The Old Northwest, including the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, was claimed by Virginia, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. Thomas Jefferson chaired a committee that, in 1784, proposed to Congress the creation of a temporary government for the Northwest and the area's eventual division into sovereign states eligible to join the Confederation on terms equal to the original members. Though the plan was not enacted, it did provide a model for the Northwest Ordinance and facilitated the cession of western lands by Virginia (in 1784), Massachusetts (1784-1785), and Connecticut (1784-1786) to the national government.
If state claims were resolved, those of Native Americans...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
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Northwest Ordinance (West's Encyclopedia of American Law)
The Northwest Ordinance, officially known as the Ordinance of 1787, created the Northwest Territory, organized its governing structure, and established the procedures by which territories were admitted as states to the Union. It was derived from a proposal by THOMAS JEFFERSON concerning the formation of states from the territory acquired as a result of the Revolutionary War. The territory stretched from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River to the area around the Great Lakes and encompassed what is today Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The reaction to Jefferson's proposal was mixed, and it was only when the Ohio Company of Associates expressed interest in purchasing the land that Congress took action.
The ordinance, passed by Congress in July 1787, was significant in providing a framework for the admission of territories into the Union as states. A government composed of a governor, a secretary, and three judges appointed by Congress was established in the region north of the Ohio River. When the population of the territory reached 5,000, the inhabitants were authorized to elect a legislature and to be represented in the House of Representatives by a nonvoting member. When a designated area of the territory had 60,000 residents, that area could seek to become a state by complying with the requirements of the ordinance. Congress required that the territory be...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
Northwest Ordinance (1787) (Major Acts of Congress)
Daniel C. Wewers
Excerpt from the Northwest Ordinance
Sec. 13. 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....
The Northwest Ordinance, approved on July 13, 1787, organized the "Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio" into one district, delineated rules for its interim governance by Congress, and established the process for territories to enter the United States as states. Passed by the Continental Congress as one of the final provisions of the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance was reenacted, with minor modifications, after ratification of the Constitution by the first Congress on August 7, 1789. While the ordinance applied solely to the "Old Northwest"he area lying west of Pennsylvania, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River to the border with British Canadat shaped congressional action regarding federal territories long after 1787. Considered one of the most important acts passed by Congress under the Articles of Confederation, the Northwest Ordinance ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as the three most significant founding documents in American history.
Debate over expansion into western territories occupied the new nation in the 1780s, and the Continental Congress passed three separate ordinances for territorial governance during that critical decade. Thomas Jefferson was the principle author of the Ordinance of 1784, written after a major 1784 Virginia land cession. The act articulated a general statement of democratic principles, recommending the evolution of the territories toward statehood in stages of increasing self-government. The Ordinance of 1784 advocated the division of the region into sixteen new states (with names like Polypotamia and Pelisipia), each possessing the same powers as the original thirteen states. The Ordinance of 1784 also prohibited slavery in the western territories after 1800, but its enforcement met delays for various reasons. In the meantime, the Land Ordinance of 1785 addressed the land-sale issue. It directed that the territory's land be surveyed in six-mile-square townships, each containing thirty-six one-mile square (640 acre) "sections" to be sold at auction for a dollar an acre. The ensuing grid pattern from this legislation still dominates the region's landscape to this day.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 filled the void left by the ineffectual 1784 Ordinance. Originally intended as an amendment to Jefferson's legislation, Massachusetts Representatives Rufus King and Nathan Dane completely redrafted the bill in the final days of Congress's session. The drafting committee also received contributions from Reverend Manasseh Cutler, an agent for the Ohio Company, a group of Massachusetts speculators prepared to purchase five million acres in the territory. Pressured by land speculators anxious to preserve private property on the frontier, the act represented a general movement toward law, order, and stability in the new nation that expressed itself in the simultaneous drafting of the Constitution. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out to a Cincinnati audience in 1859, "Our fathers who made the government, made the ordinance of 1787."
Fourteen preliminary "sections" and six solemn "articles of compact" comprised the text of the Northwest Ordinance. The opening section established one district in the Northwest Territory "for the purposes of temporary government" that Congress might subdivide if it deemed necessary. The second section contained provisions for conveying real property, making wills, and settling estates of persons dying without wills.
The ordinance then outlined a three-stage process for the transition from territorial status to statehood. In the first stage, Congress would appoint a governor, a secretary, and a court of three judges to administer the territory. To achieve its ends, this first-stage legislature of five officials was authorized to "adopt and publish" criminal and civil laws from existing states, as necessary for governance of the territory. The governor would serve a three-year term as commander in chief of the militia and appoint magistrates and other civil officials in the territory. He would also enjoy the power to establish counties, townships, and other civil divisions until the organization of the second-stage legislature, as well as to convene, suspend, or dissolve the general assembly as he saw fit. The governor would even enjoy absolute veto power over acts of the assembly.
Once the district reached a population of five thousand free males of "full age," the governor, an elected lower house, and an appointed legislative council would assume responsibility for administration. Male inhabitants of the territory meeting the property qualifications for voting could elect one representative for every five hundred free males in the district. These representatives would form the lower house of a general assembly and, in conjunction with the governor, nominate members for the legislative council (or upper house/senate). This second-stage legislature could enact any laws necessary for governing the territory not repugnant to the 1787 Ordinance or the Constitution; it also could send one non-voting member to Congress. When the district reached a population of sixty thousand free inhabitants, it entered the third stage of the process. It then could adopt a "republican" state constitution and apply to Congress for full statehood. Upon approval by Congress, the state would enter the federal union "on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever."
The second portion of the ordinance included six "articles of compact between the original states and the people and states in the said territory," to be forever "unalterable, unless by common consent." Similar to the bills of rights included in many contemporary state constitutions, Articles I and II of the ordinance guaranteed freedom of religion, the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, proportionate representation in the legislature, and judicial proceedings under common law. Article III provided for public support of education in the territory and pledged (at least in theory) the "utmost good faith" in relations with Native Americans. Article IV made the territory's inhabitants responsible for their share of the federal debt and government expenses, while Article V established the provisional boundaries of "not less than three nor more than five States," as well as the third-stage threshold of sixty thousand free inhabitants. The sixth and final article prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory, although it did allow for the recovery of fugitive slaves. Despite its lasting fame as the first piece of national legislation to limit the expansion of slaveryrticle VI became an icon of the mid-nineteenth-century Free Soil movementhe ordinance contained no enforcement mechanisms, and slavery persisted in parts of the region as late as the 1840s.
The ordinance's blueprint for continental expansion and its provisions for territorial evolution from colonial dependency to equal statehood were perhaps its most important legacies. While the Northwest Territory's relatively short administrative history ended with the admission of Ohio to the United States in 1803, the original grant of territory eventually fashioned four other states: Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837), and Wisconsin (1848), as well as part of Minnesota (1858). Altogether, this landmark legislation, establishing the basic framework for U.S. territorial governments, eventually served in related forms in the establishment of thirty-two states, one common-wealth, and one republic. Senator Daniel Webster declared in an 1830 speech, "We are accustomed to praise the lawgivers of antiquity; ... but I doubt whether one single law of any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787." Modern historians might add a degree of caution to Webster's remarks. While many have showered acclaim on a document that married territorial expansion with republican self-government, others have pointed out its tragic consequences for the Native American population that faced decimation and exile in the wake of white settlement of the Northwest Territory.
See also: SOUTHWEST ORDINANCE.
Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Taylor, Robert M., Jr., ed. The Northwest Ordinance, 1787: A Bicentennial Handbook. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1987.
Williams, Frederick D., ed. The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on Its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988.