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The Northwest Ordinance Is Adopted by Congress: July 13, 1787

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

The states however did cooperate with the national government in the matter of western land claims. Based on their old colonial charters, several of the states had laid claims to lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Now, they were handing their lands over to the central government. Virginia, which had agreed to the cession of her western lands in 1781, finally ceded them on March 1, 1784. The following year, Massachusetts and Connecticut both ceded their western land claims to the central government. In subsequent years, North Carolina and Georgia followed suit. The formation of western lands into territories of the central government made the United States an imperial power. More importantly (at least for the time), it provided the impoverished Congress with a new source of revenue—land sales to settlers. For instance, the Ohio Company, a group of land speculators, agreed to buy 1,500,000 acres of western land from the government for a dollar an acre.

First page of the Articles of Confederation
First page of the Articles of Confederation

Acquiring western territories was one discernible achievement in the early years of the American republic. Another was the Northwest Ordinance, a body of laws Congress adopted on July 13, 1787 to govern the territories. The Northwest Ordinance governs United States territories to the present day.

The Northwest Ordinance divided the Northwest (the territories north of the Ohio River and west of the Appalachians) into five regions, each of which eventually became a state. When any of these regions attained a population of 5,000 free males, Congress was to establish a territorial government for it. The government consisted of a representative assembly, elected by the people of the territory; a governor, appointed by Congress; and a council of five chosen by Congress from names submitted by the territorial assembly. All townships in the territories were to be surveyed six miles square and divided into 36 sections, each a mile square, that were to be sold at auction. Section 16 in every township was reserved for the support of public schools. When a region attained a population of 60,000 freemen, it could become a state, equal in rights and privileges to the original states.

A sort of bill of rights formed a part of the Northwest Ordinance. Congress guaranteed territorial inhabitants religious freedom. Settlements had to provide for schools, since, said the ordinance, “religion, morality, and knowledge” are “necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind.”

The Northwest Ordinance made provisions for Native Americans living within the western territories:

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.

The Northwest Ordinance addressed slavery in Article VI:

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.

The new ordinance stipulated, however, that slaves who escaped to the territory had to be returned to their masters.

A Song from the Mother Country

Samuel Arnold was an English composer whose life spanned the period of the American Revolution through that of the Constitutional Convention and the presidencies of George Washington, John Adams, and (partly) Thomas Jefferson. His music was likely played and sung in the drawing rooms of the revolutionary leaders of the former British colonies that became the United States of America. “Hist, hist, I hear my mother call” comes from Arnold’s 1765 opera, The Maid of the Hill, here played on the harpsichord, but without the singing.

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