Back To CourseSupplemental History: Study Aid
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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.
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 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.
In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, using many of Jefferson's ideas from the failed 1784 proposal. It declared that the territory would be divided into between three and five separate states. Prior to the states being created, a General Assembly would govern the territory. Once a specific region reached 60,000 settlers, it could apply for statehood. Even though it would take years before this territory officially became split into states, the ordinance still guaranteed basic rights to all those who settled in the Northwest Territory. These rights specifically included religious freedom, the right of trial by jury, and free access to the major rivers of the region.
Most importantly, in accordance with Jefferson's 1784 proposal, the Northwest Ordinance granted full and equal legal status to all new states admitted into the Union. These lands would not be subservient territories; they would be free and equal states. As you can see on the map below, the Northwest Territory eventually became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Because the Northwest Ordinance guaranteed that new states would be on an equal footing with older ones, it was a landmark document in American history.
Another important aspect of the Northwest Ordinance was how it addressed the issue of slavery. The institution of slavery was a major dividing point in early American history from when the original colonies were settled until the Civil War. Once the colonies became the United States, questions arose over whether slavery would expand along with the new nation. Just as Jefferson had suggested, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the territory, making it the first major act of Congress to abolish slavery from new lands added to the United States.
While banning slavery, the ordinance did state that slaves who escaped into the territory were liable to be seized by their owners and returned to where they were held. This essentially stated that fugitive slave laws would apply to both the existing states and new territories as well. Because it recognized the rights of slave owners and slave catchers to retrieve runaways, the Northwest Ordinance reflected the divided attitudes on slavery that characterized much of the early history of the United States.
The Northwest Ordinance was one of the most important acts passed in the early history of the United States. It set guidelines for allowing the formation of new states and dictated that all new states would enter the Union with the same rights and status of older ones. It also banned slavery in the Northwest Territory, striking a blow against the institution and suggesting that the spread of slavery would be contested as the country grew.
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Back To CourseSupplemental History: Study Aid
1 chapters | 21 lessons