Historical Highlights

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787

July 13, 1787
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 Image courtesy of the Library of Congress As a Member of the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia authored the 1784 Northwest Ordinance.  In 1787, Jefferson served as a diplomat to the King of France.
On this date, the Continental Congress approved “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio,” by a vote of 17–1. Better known as the Northwest Ordinance, it provided a path toward statehood for the territories northwest of the Ohio River, encompassing the area that would become the future states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. Drafted by Massachusetts Delegates Rufus King and Nathan Dane, the 1787 ordinance sought to revise Thomas Jefferson’s 1784 ordinance by designating the territories as one district which fell under Congress’s jurisdiction. In addition to information about real estate and estate planning, the 1787 ordinance also outlined a general process for acquiring statehood. The First Federal Congress renewed the Northwest Ordinance during its first session in August 1789. But after obtaining vast amounts of land from France with the Louisiana Purchase and from Spain with the purchase of Spanish Florida, policymakers were forced to adapt the Northwest Ordinance to suit their changing needs. Although the Northwest Ordinance remained a primary model, Congress passed a series of enabling acts that granted greater autonomy to territorial officials while providing a path to eventual statehood.

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