On July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance (formally An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, and also known as The Ordinance of 1787) was passed, creating the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States. This was an act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States (the Confederation Congress) responding to multiple pressures: the westward expansion of American settlers, tense diplomatic relations with Great Britain and Spain, violent confrontations with Native Americans, the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, and the empty treasury of the American government. It was based upon but more conservative than Thomas Jefferson’s proposed ordinance of 1784. The Northwest Territory was created from lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, between British North America and the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south. The upper Mississippi River formed the Territory’s western boundary.
The 1787 law relied on a strong central government, which was assured under the new Constitution that took effect in 1789. In August 1789, it was replaced by the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, in which the new Congress reaffirmed the Ordinance with slight modifications.
Considered one of the most important legislative acts of the Confederation Congress, it established the precedent by which the Federal government would be sovereign and expand westward with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. It was also precedent setting legislation with regard to American public domain lands. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the authority of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 within the applicable Northwest Territory as constitutional in Strader v. Graham, 51 U.S. 82, 96, 97 (1851), but did not extend the Ordinance to cover the respective states once they were admitted to the Union.
The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between free and slave territory in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This division helped set the stage for national competition over admitting free and slave states, the basis of a critical question in American politics in the 19th century until the Civil War.
The Territory Northwest of the River Ohio, more commonly known as the Northwest Territory, encompassed most of the pre-war territory of the Ohio Country, parts of Illinois Country, and parts of old French Canada below the Great Lakes. It spanned most or large parts of six eventual U.S. states and existed legally from July 13, 1787, until March 1, 1803, when the southeastern portion of the territory was admitted to the Union as the state of Ohio, and the remainder was reorganized by additional legislative actions.
In the 18th century, Great Britain and the France disputed for control of this region. The French had claimed it in the 17th century as part of New France; the competition between these empires was one cause of the French and Indian War (known as the Seven Years’ War in Europe). After Britain gained control following its defeat of France in 1763, its attempts to reserve territory for use by Native Americans, under the Royal Proclamation of 1763, and for a new colony the British Province of Quebec, roused resentment among British colonists, who were already seeking to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains.
Sporadic westward emigrant settlements resumed late in the war after the Iroquois Confederation’s power was broken and the tribes scattered by the 1779 Sullivan Expedition. It boomed soon after the Revolution ended as the westward traffic spurred expansion of a gateway trading post into the town of Brownsville, Pennsylvania as a key outfitting center west of the mountains.
Wagon roads such as the Kittanning Path surmounting the gaps of the Allegheny in central Pennsylvania, and trails along the Mohawk River in New York let a steady stream of settlers reach the near west and the lands bordering the Mississippi. This activity stimulated the development of the eastern parts of the eventual National Road by private investors. The Cumberland–Brownsville toll road linked the water routes of the Potomac River with the Monongahela River of the Ohio/Mississippi riverine systems in the days when water travel was the only good alternative to walking and riding. Most of the territory and its successors was settled by emigrants passing through the Cumberland Narrows, or along the Mohawk Valley in New York State.
The region was acquired by Great Britain from France following victory in the Seven Years’ War and the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Great Britain took over the Ohio Country, as its eastern portion was known, but a few months later closed it to new European settlement by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The Crown tried to restrict settlement of the thirteen colonies between the Appalachians and the Atlantic, which raised colonial tensions among those who wanted to move west. With the colonials’ victory in the American Revolutionary War and signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the United States claimed the territory, as well as the areas south of the Ohio. The territories were subject to overlapping and conflicting claims of the states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia dating from their colonial past. The British were active in some of the border area until after the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812.
The region had long been desired for expansion by colonists. The states were encouraged to settle their claims by the US government’s de facto opening of the area to settlement following the defeat of Great Britain. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson, a delegate from Virginia, proposed that the states should relinquish their particular claims to all the territory west of the Appalachians, and the area should be divided into new states of the Union. Jefferson’s proposal to create a federal domain through state cessions of western lands was derived from earlier proposals dating back to 1776 and debates about the Articles of Confederation. Jefferson proposed creating ten roughly rectangular states from the territory, and suggested names for the new states: Cherronesus, Sylvania, Assenisipia, Illinoia, Metropotamia, Polypotamia, Pelisipia, Washington, Michigania and Saratoga. The Congress of the Confederation modified the proposal, passing it as the Land Ordinance of 1784. This ordinance established the example that would become the basis for the Northwest Ordinance three years later.
The 1784 ordinance was criticized by George Washington in 1785 and James Monroe in 1786. Monroe convinced Congress to reconsider the proposed state boundaries; a review committee recommended repealing that part of the ordinance. Other politicians questioned the 1784 ordinance’s plan for organizing governments in new states, and worried that the new states’ relatively small sizes would undermine the original states’ power in Congress. Other events such as the reluctance of states south of the Ohio River to cede their western claims resulted in a narrowed geographic focus.
When passed in New York in 1787, the Northwest Ordinance showed the influence of Jefferson. It called for dividing the territory into gridded townships, so that once the lands were surveyed, they could be sold to individuals and speculative land companies. This would provide both a new source of federal government revenue and an orderly pattern for future settlement.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the concept of fee simple ownership, by which ownership was in perpetuity with unlimited power to sell or give it away. This was called the “first guarantee of freedom of contract in the United States.
The passage of the ordinance, which ceded all unsettled lands to the federal government and established the public domain, followed the relinquishing of all such claims over the territory by the states. These territories were to be administered directly by Congress, with the intent of their eventual admission as newly created states. The legislation was revolutionary in that it established the precedent for new lands to be administered by the central government, albeit temporarily, rather than under the jurisdiction of the individually sovereign original states, as it was with the Articles of Confederation. The legislation also broke colonial precedent by defining future use of the natural navigation, transportation and communication routes; it did so in a way that anticipated future acquisitions beyond the Northwest Territories, and established federal policy.
Article 4 states: “The navigable waters leading into the Mississippi and St. Lawrence, and the carrying places between the same, shall be common highways and forever free, as well to the inhabitants of the said territory as to the citizens of the United States, and those of any other States that may be admitted into the confederacy, without any tax, impost, or duty therefor.”
The most significant intended purpose of this legislation was its mandate for the creation of new states from the region. It provided that at least three but not more than five states would be established in the territory, and that once such a state achieved a population of 60,000 it would be admitted into representation in the Continental Congress on an equal footing with the original thirteen states. The first state created from the Northwest Territory was Ohio, in 1803, at which time the remainder was renamed Indiana Territory. The other four states were Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. A portion (about a third) of what later became the state of Minnesota was also part of the territory.
The ordinance of Congress called for a public university as part of the settlement and eventual statehood of the Ohio Territory, further stipulating “Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
In 1786, Manasseh Cutler became interested in the settlement of western lands by American pioneers to the Northwest Territory. The following year, as agent of the Ohio Company of Associates that he had been involved in creating, he organized a contract with Congress whereby his associates (former soldiers of the Revolutionary War) might purchase one and a half million acres (6,000 km²) of land at the mouth of the Muskingum River with their Certificate of Indebtedness.
Cutler also took a leading part in drafting the Ordinance of 1787 for the government of the Northwest Territory, which was finally presented to Congress by Massachusetts delegate Nathan Dane. To smooth passage of the Northwest Ordinance, Cutler bribed key congressmen by making them partners in his land company. By changing the office of provisional governor from an elected to an appointed position, Cutler was able to offer the position to the president of Congress, Arthur St. Clair.
In 1797, settlers from Marietta traveled upstream via the Hocking River to establish a location for the school, choosing Athens due to its location directly between Chillicothe (the original capital of Ohio) and Marietta. Originally named in 1802 as the American Western University, the school never opened. Instead, Ohio University was formally established on February 18, 1804, when its charter was approved by the Ohio General Assembly. Its establishment came 11 months after Ohio was admitted to the Union. The first three students enrolled in 1809. Ohio University graduated two students with bachelor’s degrees in 1815.
The language of the ordinance prohibits slavery, but also contained a clear fugitive slave clause as well. Efforts in the 1820s by pro-slavery forces to legalize slavery in two of the states created from the Northwest Territory failed, but an “indentured servant” law allowed some slaveholders to bring slaves under that status; they could not be bought or sold. Southern states voted for the law because they did not want to compete with the territory over tobacco as a commodity crop; it was so labor-intensive that it was grown profitably only with slave labor. Additionally, slave-states’ political power would merely be equalized, as there were three more slave-states than there were free-states in 1790.
Scott #1795 was released by the United States Post Office Department at Marietta, Ohio, on July 13, 1937, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Northwest Territory as defined by the Ordinance of 1787. The 3-cent violet stamp features a map of the Territory, flanked by portraits of Manasseh Cutler, who drafted the ordinance, and Rufus Putnam, superintendent of settlement in the Territory. Perforated 11 x 10½, a total of 84,825,250 stamps were released.