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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.
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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 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

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

Provides an account of the drafting of the Northwest Ordinance that focuses on the prohibition of slavery in the territories. Also includes an account of the Centennial Jubilee of Freedom at Columbus, Ohio, which was a celebration by African Americans in 1888 of the Northwest Ordinance and the Emancipation Proclamation.

A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

The Journals of the Continental Congress contains the legislative history of the Northwest Ordinance. On April 26, 1787, a Congressional committee issued its report on an ordinance for disposing of the Western Territory. The proposed ordinance was debated on May 9 and May 10, but did not receive final approval. Instead, it was referred to a new committee that issued a new draft of the ordinance on July 11, which passed in its final form as the Northwest Ordinance on July 13, 1787.

The Letters of Delegates to Congress reprints a number of letters related to the Northwest Ordinance. For example, Richard Henry Lee announced to Francis Lightfoot Lee in a letter dated July 14, 1787, that "after some difficulty we passed an Ordinance for establishing a temporary Government beyond the Ohio as preparatory to the sale of that Country." Nathan Dane also discussed the recently adopted Northwest Ordinance in a letter to Rufus King. Dane and King are considered the principal of authors of the Northwest Ordinance. Search the Letters of the Delegates to find additional letters written about the Ordinance.

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

Includes the special presentation To Form a More Perfect Union: The Work of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention, which examines Congressional debate after the Revolutionary War over the division and government of the Western Territories.

Contains a broadside of the Northwest Ordinance as passed on July 13, 1787. Also includes a draft of the Ordinance with annotations in the margin that indicate changes made on May 10, 1787.

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

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

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

Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress

Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Ordinance of 1784 was passed by Congress but never went into effect. The provisions found in the Ordinance of 1784 served as the basis for the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.


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

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

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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  September 24, 2014
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