Northwest Ordinance (1787)


In 1787, Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance which structured settlement of the Northwest Territory and created a policy for adding new States to the nation. Congress knew that if their new confederation were to survive it had to resolve the States’ competing claims to western territory.

In 1781, Virginia began by ceding its extensive land claims to Congress. This made other States more comfortable in doing the same. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson first proposed a method of incorporating these western territories into the United States. His plan turned the territories into colonies of the existing States. Then ten new northwestern territories would select the constitution of an existing State and then wait until its population reached 20,000 to join the confederation as a full member. Congress feared that the new States, 10 in the Northwest as well as Kentucky, Tennessee and Vermont, would quickly gain enough power to outvote the old ones and it never passed the measure.

Three years later, the Northwest Ordinance proposed that three to five new States be created from the Northwest Territory. Instead of adopting the legal constructs of an existing State, each territory would have an appointed governor and council. When the population reached 5,000, the residents could elect their own assembly, although the governor would retain absolute veto power. When 60,000 settlers resided in a territory, they could draft a constitution and petition for full Statehood. The ordinance provided for civil liberties and public education within the new territories, but did not allow slavery. 

Pro-slavery Southerners were willing to go along with this because they hoped that the new States would be populated by white settlers from the South. They believed that although these Southerners would have no slaves of their own, they would not join the growing abolition movement of the North.