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Primary Documents in American History

Northwest Ordinance

An ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States, North-west of the river Ohio.
An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, 1787.
New York: s.n., 1787.
Rare Book and Special
Collections Division

The Northwest Ordinance, officially titled "An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio," was adopted by the Confederation Congress on July 13, 1787. Also known as the Ordinance of 1787, the Northwest Ordinance established a government for the Northwest Territory, outlined the process for admitting a new state to the Union, and guaranteed that newly created states would be equal to the original thirteen states. Considered one of the most important legislative acts of the Confederation Congress, the Northwest Ordinance also protected civil liberties and outlawed slavery in the new territories.

Library of Congress Web Site | External Web Sites | Selected Bibliography

Digital Collections

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

This collection contains congressional publications from 1774 to 1875, including debates, bills, laws, and journals.

The Journals of the Continental Congress contains the legislative history of the Northwest Ordinance.

  • April 26, 1787 - A committee issued its report on an ordinance for disposing of the Western Territory.
  • May 9, 1787 - The proposed ordinance was debated.
  • May 10, 1787 - Debate continued on the proposed ordinance.
  • July 9, 1787 - The proposed ordinance was referred to a new committee.
  • July 11, 1787 - The new committee issued a revised draft of the ordinance.
  • July 12, 1787 - The proposed ordinance was read a second time.
  • July 13, 1787 - The Northwest Ordinance was passed.

The Letters of Delegates to Congress reprints a number of letters that reference the Northwest Ordinance, including:

Search the Letters of the Delegates to find additional letters written about the Northwest Ordinance.

African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A.P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907

This collection presents a panoramic and eclectic review of African-American history and culture, spanning almost one hundred years from the early nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, with the bulk of the material published between 1875 and 1900.

Documents from the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789

This collection contains 277 documents relating to the work of Congress and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution. It includes the essay To Form a More Perfect Union, which examines Congressional debate after the Revolutionary War over the division and government of the Western Territories.

The First American West: The Ohio River Valley, 1750-1820

This collection consists of 15,000 pages of original historical material documenting the land, peoples, exploration, and transformation of the trans-Appalachian West from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. The collection is drawn from the holdings of the University of Chicago Library and the Filson Historical Society of Louisville, Kentucky. It includes a book about American geography published in 1794 that provides a general description of the Northwest Territory, including the system of government created by the Northwest Ordinance.

Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910

This collection portrays the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century through first-person accounts, biographies, promotional literature, local histories, ethnographic and antiquarian texts, colonial archival documents, and other works drawn from the Library of Congress's General Collections and Rare Books and Special Collections Division.

The special presentation The History of the Upper Midwest: An Overview includes a chapter The Northwest and the Ordinances, 1783-1858.

Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress

The complete Thomas Jefferson Papers from the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress consists of approximately 27,000 documents.

Exhibitions

Creating the United States

This online exhibition offers insights into how the nation’s founding documents were forged and the role that imagination and vision played in the unprecedented creative act of forming a self–governing country. The section of the exhibition Road to the Constitution contains two documents related to the Northwest Ordinance.

Thomas Jefferson

This exhibition focuses on the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. A section on the West examines Jefferson’s role in developing a plan for the creation of territories and new states that formed the basis of the Ordinance of 1784, which accepted the cession of most of Virginia's old Northwest to the federal government.

Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

Explores the role religion played in the founding of the American colonies, in the shaping of early American life and politics, and in forming the American Republic. Includes a section entitled Religion and the Congress of the Confederation, which discusses references to religion in the Northwest Ordinance.

Today in History

December 3, 1818

On December 3, 1818, Illinois entered the Union as the twenty-first state. Illinois was the third state formed from the Northwest Territory after Ohio in 1803 and Indiana in 1816.

January 26, 1837

Michigan entered the Union as the twenty-sixth state on January 26, 1837, the fourth state created from the Northwest Territory.

May 29, 1848

On May 29, 1848, Wisconsin became the thirtieth state admitted to the Union, the last state formed in its entirety from the Northwest Territory.

May 11, 1858

Minnesota became the thirty-second state admitted into the Union on May 11, 1858. The section of the state east of the Mississippi River was originally part of the Northwest Territory.

Link disclaimerExternal Web Sites

Northwest Ordinance Timeline, Indiana Historical Bureau

Our Documents, Northwest Ordinance, National Archives and Records Administration

Selected Bibliography

Barrett, Jay A. Evolution of the Ordinance of 1787: With an Account of the Earlier Plans for the Government of the Northwest Territory. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1891. [Catalog Record] [Full Text] External Link

Jensen, Merrill. The New Nation: A History of the United States during the Confederation, 1781-1789. New York: Knopf, 1950. [Catalog Record]

Merriam, John M. "The Legislative History of the Ordinance of 1787." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 5 (April 25, 1888): 303–342. [Full Text] External Link

Onuf, Peter S. Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. [Catalog Record]

Taylor, Robert M., Jr., ed. The Northwest Ordinance, 1787: A Bicentennial Handbook. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1987. [Catalog Record]

Williams, Frederick D., ed. The Northwest Ordinance: Essays on its Formulation, Provisions, and Legacy. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989. [Catalog Record]

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  April 21, 2015
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