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Northwest Ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance, officially known as the Ordinance of 1787, created the Northwest Territory, organized its governing structure, and established the procedures by which territories were admitted as states to the Union. It was derived from a proposal by THOMAS JEFFERSON concerning the formation of states from the territory acquired as a result of the Revolutionary War. The territory stretched from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River to the area around the Great Lakes and encompassed what is today Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The reaction to Jefferson's proposal was mixed, and it was only when the Ohio Company of Associates expressed interest in purchasing the land that Congress took action.

The ordinance, passed by Congress in July 1787, was significant in providing a framework for the admission of territories into the Union as states. A government composed of a governor, a secretary, and three judges appointed by Congress was established in the region north of the Ohio River. When the population of the territory reached 5,000, the inhabitants were authorized to elect a legislature and to be represented in the House of Representatives by a nonvoting member. When a designated area of the territory had 60,000 residents, that area could seek to become a state by complying with the requirements of the ordinance. Congress required that the territory be divided into at least three but not more than five states. Five states were eventually carved out of the territory.

Aside from the provisions concerning statehood, the Northwest Ordinance had two distinct prohibitions. There was to be no SLAVERY within the boundaries of the territory, and no law could be enacted that would impair a contract.

The Northwest Ordinance was important because it provided the foundation for the creation of later territories within the Union and established the process by which territories became states.


Williams, Frederick D., ed. 1989. The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on Its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.

Onuf, Peter S. 1987. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

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