What Was The Northwest Ordinance?   

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was an important law passed by the Continental Congress.   The Northwest Ordinance helped organize western lands such as Ohio for settlement after the American Revolution.  It was important for the new nation to come up with an organized system of settlement that would raise money for the government and ensure rights and opportunities for the people.  The law also created a process for which new states could be admitted to the union.  

The Northwest Ordinance created an organized area of land known as the "Northwest Territory."  A "territory" is a piece of land that is owned by the United States but that is not a state.  For example, today places such as Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, and the District of Columbia are all territories of the United States.   People who live in territories are American citizens and have the same rights as other citizens across the nation.  Territories are given some representation in Congress, however they cannot vote are participate in presidential elections (with the exception of the District of Columbia). In time, these territories could also become states. 

The Northwest Territory was the first territory created by the United States in 1787.  The Northwest Territory stretched from the western boarder of Pennsylvania west to the Mississippi River and from Canada south to the Ohio River.  Under the Northwest Ordinance, land was to be governed by a governor and judges appointed by Congress until there were at least 5,000 adult free males living in the territory.  Once the population of an area reached 5,000 free males, the area it would become a "territory" and could form its own representative legislature to make laws for the territory.  The law also states that within the Northwest Territory a minimum of three and a maximum of five states could be created.  If an individual territory reached a population of 60,000, that area could be admitted or added to the union as a new state.  This is the same process that Ohio used in 1803 to become the 17th state.  Ohio was once part of the Northwest Territory; however when the population reached 60,000 adult free males, Ohio was given statehood by Congress. 

The Northwest Ordinance also protected the basic rights and freedoms of the people living in the Northwest Territory.  Citizens within the Northwest territory were guaranteed important rights such as freedom of religion, trial by jury, and were free from cruel and unusual punishment.  These rights are some of the most basic rights that were eventually placed in our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights years later.  Slavery was also made illegal in the Northwest Territory.  There was never a time in Ohio history when slavery was legal.   The Northwest Ordinance also provided citizens with a right to a free public education for young people that we still enjoy today. 


The Northwest Territory shown in green