The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

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This booklet discusses the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, describing the importance and legacy of the Northwest Ordinance.
1. The Northwest
Ordinance of 1787
Establishing government in the
Northwest Territory was important to the
new nation for many reasons. First, the
frontier had to be strong enough to with-
stand any attempt by England, France, or
Spain to retake the land for themselves.
America’s organized territories needed to
have organized fighting units, or militia, for
protection. British troops were still close Each section contained 640 acres. A section
by, and they weren’t sure the new govern- was divided into 160-acre quarters. More
surveying divided the quarters into farms
ment would really last. The British wanted and town lots. Graphic (PP)
to control the land to help their Ohio Indian
allies. The new American nation would have
to prove it was strong enough to keep the colonies) were squabbling with each other.
territories that the Treaty of Paris had They acted as if they were separate little
given it. countries. This could not continue if the
The new government also had some United States of America was to survive.
serious financial problems. Organizing new The states and federal government needed
territories so land could be easily sold gave to work together to grow a new nation.
the leaders a way to raise money for the As you have read in the previous
national treasury. Similarly, soldiers who section, parts of the western territory
were getting more and more upset about were ceded to the federal government by
not being paid for their service during the the states that had claimed the land.
war could be given land. War leaders, like Therefore, the Northwest Territory
George Washington, were especially con- became public domain, meaning it was owned
cerned about these angry soldiers. He by the people of the United States through
wanted them to be rewarded for their sac- their federal government. As public domain,
rifices during the war. Free land and a new this territory would be governed by the
beginning were all the government could Congress. The Congress would decide the
afford to give them. best way to divide the land, to settle the
Finally, establishing new territories land, and to govern the land. The federal
would be a way to strengthen a federal gov- survey system (36-square-mile grid) was
ernment that seemed to be getting weaker adopted as the method of surveying and
all the time. The thirteen states (formerly charting public domain lands.
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2. The Importance of
the Northwest
It is said that the three
greatest documents in American
history are the Declaration of
Independence, the Constitution, and
the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
In fact, much of the Constitution
came about as a direct result of
writings in the Northwest
Ordinance. The Bill of Rights (the
first 10 amendments of the
Constitution) actually had its begin-
ning in the six articles of the
Northwest Ordinance.
The survey of Northwest Ohio used the Ohio-Indiana state line as a “First Principal
Meridian.” The 41st parallel of north latitude became an intersecting, east-west base line
used in surveying.
Graphic (QQ)
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3. Some of these similarities include: some examples:
• freedom of religion
• trial by jury • Ownership of the land was passed down
to the owner’s descendants. Some
• no cruel or unusual punishment people died before their land warrants
• freedom from slavery or involuntary were used. The ordinance made a way
servitude for a veteran’s family to keep the land
that was promised to him.
New states would come into the
• Governors would govern the territory;
nation easily because of the ordinance. first by being appointed by Congress;
Ohio would be the first to come from then by being elected when enough
people lived there. Today, each of the
the Northwest Territory. Later, four 50 states has a governor as its execu-
more would come from this territory tive leader.
(Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and • A secretary would keep track of all
Wisconsin). One of the most important legal records for the territory and
would send copies to the Congress. A
effects of the ordinance was that each Secretary of State is an important
new state would enter the nation com- office that remains in effect for all
states today.
pletely equal to the older states. Never
• Judges would be appointed to settle
before in the history of the world had disputes between residents in the ter-
this been done. The Northwest ritory. This made sure that every
American’s rights would be protected
Ordinance became a strengthening force no matter where they lived.
in the forming and growth of this nation.
• Eventually a legislature would be
The Northwest Ordinance stated some elected for the region. The state legis-
important ideas and rights. Here are lature is the lawmaking part of the
state government. Once the Northwest
Territory had at least 5,000 free males
Along the Ohio Trail
Who wrote the Declaration of Independence? Mostly Thomas Jefferson, of
The Northwest Ordinance did not have one author. It didn’t even have a
dozen. Over time, this document had the input of many men as it was written and
rewritten and passed through committee after committee until it took its final
All of the writers were careful of one thing: that they didn’t write anything
that sounded like something the British would have written. They replaced the
words “colony” and “colonial” (though the Northwest area was certainly a colony of
the new government) with “territory” and “territorial.”
We still use that language today. Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin
Islands are U.S. territories — not colonies — and we have many others. All
but 20 of our 50 states were territories before becoming states.
The exceptions are the 13 colonies, California, Kentucky, Maine,
Texas, Vermont, Tennessee and West Virginia.
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4. over the age of 21 living there, a leg- leaders of the original states were not
islative council was formed and a house
especially happy about this part). Most
of representatives could be elected.
state constitutions are similar to each
• The governor would be the commander-
in-chief of the militia. other. The Northwest Ordinance tells
• The governor would appoint (choose) how a state will be governed and what
sheriffs to protect the citizens. Ohio rights the citizens can enjoy:
still has sheriffs in most counties, but
they are now elected rather than
appointed. • Civil and religious freedoms were to be
protected. Civil rights (rights as citi-
• The governor would arrange for surveys zens of the United States) and reli-
of the land as needed. gious rights (freedom to worship
however one wants) are among the most
A constitution was the last of three important parts of the ordinance.
steps needed for a territory to become a • Every person would have rights
state. (The first was the appointment of in court.
a governor, secretary, and three judges; • Waterways leading to the Mississippi
River and St. Lawrence Seaway would
the second was the forming of a house of be forever free of taxation.
representatives.) A constitution could be
• Provisions were made for no fewer than
drawn up (written) once a region had three and no more than five states in
60,000 inhabitants. After revisions and the Northwest Territory. As we know,
five states were created from this
final approval of its constitution, the ter- territory.
ritory could apply to the federal govern- • Slavery was prohibited. The ordinance
ment for statehood. Any states coming stated, “There shall be neither slavery
nor involuntary servitude in said
into the nation would be on “equal footing” territory.” Nearly 100 years later,
with the original states (some of the after the Civil War, the Thirteenth
Amendment to the United States
Along the Ohio Trail
Can you see how the ideas in the Northwest Ordinance have
affected Ohio?
Who is the governing leader of Ohio today?
Do we have a state legislature?
Who represents your area?
Does your county have a sheriff?
On what side was Ohio during the Civil War?
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5. Constitution would repeat almost the It would not run over the natives to
same words — ending slavery in the do so. One section of the ordinance
United States.
stated that:
• Education was encouraged.
“The utmost good faith shall always be
The Legacy of observed toward the Indians. Their lands and
the Ordinance property shall never be taken from them without
their consent; and in their property, rights, and
A legacy is something that is left liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed
for the future by someone or something. unless in just and lawful wars authorized by
The legacy of the Northwest Ordinance Congress.”
was a nation that reached “from sea to Unfortunately, years later, the last
shining sea.” Before this ordinance, there part of this section was used to justify
was no method by which a territory could (make an excuse for) taking lands from
become a state. With this ordinance, not them in Ohio, but especially in the Great
only was a method adopted, but it was a Plains and farther western lands.
method that worked well. As the nation So, with the method ready, the
grew, the method made the path smooth. nation was set to go — into the
Northwest Territory to grow the nation.
Along the Ohio Trail
Most early settlers wanted to live in the woodland areas. Because these people
were farmers, they believed that this was the best land for growing crops. They
figured if trees grew there, then crops would, too.
Before they could plant anything, they had to clear the land. There were two ways
to remove the trees: cutting them down or killing them. The settlers girdled the trees.
They cut away some bark from the tree all the way around, like a belt of missing bark.
Soon the tree would die.
Once the trees in an area had died, Farmers removed all the bushes and grasses
(underbrush) so they could plow the land. They used axes and saws to cut down the
trees, and the timber (wood) was used to build their cabins, fences, and other buildings.
Logs would be dragged to the building site. Bark was removed and logs were smoothed
out as much as possible. They cut notches in the ends of the logs so they could stack
them to make the cabin’s walls. Then they filled the cracks between the logs with mud or
Inside, a finished cabin had either dirt floors or flat log boards to walk on. A
fireplace kept the home warm, gave light in the evening, and provided heat for cooking.
Families also used candles and lanterns for more lighting. A loft, an upstairs area reached
by a homemade ladder, was built where the children usually slept.
The first crop of these early settlers was corn, because it was so
versatile (able to be used many ways). Dried corn was ground up into
cornmeal and used to make cornbread, mush, and johnnycakes — a corn
pancake. Corn was fed to livestock. Some was saved as seed for the
next year’s crop.
Ohio’s rich soils made farming successful. Today Ohio still
produces great corn crops — and more!
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