Ordinance of 1787

Ordinance of 1787, adopted by the Congress of Confederation for the government of the Western territories ceded to the United States by the states. It created the Northwest Territory and is frequently called the Northwest Ordinance. It was based on the ordinance of 1784, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which provided for dividing the region into numerous territories. The 1784 ordinance never went into effect. In 1785 an ordinance was passed providing for division and sale of the lands. Subsequently, the application of the Ohio Company of Associates to purchase a large tract of land in the region forced Congress to act on political administration for the area. The able leaders of the company, Rufus Putnam and Manasseh Cutler, were influential in the drafting of the ordinance, which was passed July 13, 1787. It set up a government in the region N of the Ohio River. A territorial governor, a secretary, and three judges were to be appointed by Congress, which would retain control until the population reached 5,000 voting citizens, when an elected legislature would be set up and the territory would obtain a nonvoting representative in the U.S. House of Representatives. When any portion of the territory reached a population of 60,000 or more, it could apply for admission to the Union as a state according to conditions laid down in the ordinance; there were to be not less than three or more than five states created out of the region (five were ultimately created). The ordinance also provided that no one born in the Northwest Territory should be a slave, that no law should ever be passed there that would impair the obligation of contract, that the fundamental rights and religious freedom be observed, and that education be promoted. The ordinance was the most significant achievement of Congress under the Articles of Confederation. It set the form by which subsequent Western territories were created and later admitted into the Union as states and marked the beginning of Western expansion of the United States.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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