The Northwest Ordinance is Passed by Continental Congress

In 1781, Virginia began by ceding its extensive land claims to Congress, a move that 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 effectively turned the territories into colonies of the existing states. 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, however, 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 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.

The Northwest Ordinance, adopted July 13, 1787, by the Second Continental Congress, chartered a government for the Northwest Territory, provided a method for admitting new states to the Union from the territory, and listed a bill of rights guaranteed in the territory. Following the principles outlined by Thomas Jefferson in the Ordinance of 1784, the authors of the Northwest Ordinance (probably Nathan Dane and Rufus King) spelled out a plan that was subsequently used as the country expanded to the Pacific.

The following three principal provisions were ordained in the document: (1) a division of the Northwest Territory into “not less than three nor more than five States”; (2) a three-stage method for admitting a new state to the Union—with a congressionally appointed governor, secretary, and three judges to rule in the first phase; an elected assembly and one nonvoting delegate to Congress to be elected in the second phase, when the population of the territory reached “five thousand free male inhabitants of full age”; and a state constitution to be drafted and membership to the Union to be requested in the third phase when the population reached 60,000; and (3) a bill of rights protecting religious freedom, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, the benefit of trial by jury, and other individual rights. In addition the ordinance encouraged education and forbade slavery.

The Northwest Ordinance provided that:

“…religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Nearly every state admitted to the Union after this has written in their State Constitution wording that the schools are to teach morality and religion and they all use the Bible as the bases for their teachings. Also, slavery was outlawed in the Northwest territory.

 

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