The Northwest Ordinance: Definition & Summary

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  • 0:01 The Northwest Territory
  • 0:36 Excess Lands
  • 2:51 Jefferson's Proposal
  • 3:52 The Northwest Ordinance
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
In this lesson, we will learn about the Northwest Ordinance, the 1787 act of Congress that laid the groundwork for adding new territory to the United States.

The Northwest Territory

The Northwest Ordinance was an act passed by Congress in 1787 that provided rules for governing the Northwest Territory, land north of the Ohio River and west of the Alleghenies. It laid out rules for how parts of the territory could eventually become states, and it paved the way for new states to be added to the Union with the same rights and status as already-existing states. While the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were extremely important in founding the United States and setting up the Federal government, the Northwest Ordinance was vital for establishing how the country would expand westward.

Excess Lands

While many of us think of the state of Virginia under its current boundaries, Virginia, like many of the other original colonies, used to be much bigger. For example, not only did Virginia once contain the area now comprising the state of West Virginia, but in the 1600s, Virginia, along with other colonies, laid claim to lands north and west of the Ohio River. Another example of colonies being larger than their modern states is Massachusetts; originally, the colony of Massachusetts included what is now the state of Maine.

With the end of the American Revolution in 1783, the nascent United States faced many challenges. One of them was to determine how to handle excess lands that had previously been held by colonies, such as Virginia and Massachusetts. The 1783 Treaty of Paris that brought the Revolutionary War to a close dictated that the western boundary for the United States would be the Mississippi River. This meant that the new states had to figure out what to do about their individual western boundaries; they could no longer each lay claim to vast western lands.

In these early days of the nation, individual states, Congress, and private land speculators were all interested in acquiring these new lands to facilitate western settlement. Land speculators saw opportunities for personal wealth in these western lands; individual states thought the lands were rightfully theirs under their original claims, and they should accordingly be set aside for their own residents; and Congress believed that the western lands were a national resource, and their sale could be used to pay off the debts incurred during the Revolution.

Congress won out. During the 1780s, many of the states with claims to western lands gave them to the Federal government. Thus, Congress now owned a considerable amount of land to the west of the newly established states. In the interest of selling the land to settlers and expanding the country westward, many advocated establishing some type of stable government in these western territories. Among those suggesting this was Thomas Jefferson, who in 1784 proposed an ordinance to govern the Northwestern Territory, land north of the Ohio River and west of the Alleghenies.

Jefferson's Proposal

Jefferson's 1784 proposal would form the basis of the Northwest Ordinance that would be passed by Congress several years later. In many ways, this proposal was key in establishing guiding principles for how new lands would be admitted to the Union. Perhaps most importantly, Jefferson suggested that the area of the Northwest Territory be divided into states and that those states be admitted to the Union with the same status and rights as the original 13.

This concept of admitting states with full and equal rights was vital to expanding the nation and its promise of freedom. Whereas some thought that western territories should be governed as subservient lands, unequal to the already-existing states, Jefferson believed that new states needed to be every bit a part of the country as the original ones. Also important was Jefferson's suggestion that slavery be kept out of the Northwest Territory. Unfortunately, Jefferson's original 1784 proposal never passed Congress.

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