Northwest Ordinance (1787)

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Citation: Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787; (National Archives Microfilm Publication M332, roll 9); Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789; Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1774-1789, Record Group 360; National Archives.
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Officially titled An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio, the Northwest Ordinance was passed on July 13, 1787.

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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 copy of the ordinance on this site is a printed document, dated in the last paragraph and signed by the secretary of Congress, Charles Thomson.

(Information excerpted from National Archives Education Staff. The Constitution: Evolution of a Government. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2001.)

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