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Northwest Ordinance of 1787

When parties who would later form the Ohio Land Company expressed an interest in buying 5 million acres of land should the territory be organized on a free basis, the Articles of Confederation Congress took note. In 1787, an ordinance based on earlier recommendations from Thomas Jefferson was enacted. The Northwest Ordinance, as it came to be known, clearly indicated the western lands north of the Ohio River, west of the Alleghenies, and east of the Mississippi River would be settled and become states on a par with existing ones. The ordinance provided that:

  • No fewer than three, or more than five, states would be formed
  • Admission to the Union would be available when the number of free inhabitants reached 60,000
  • Civil rights and liberties be guaranteed
  • Education be encouraged
  • Slavery and involuntary servitude be prohibited.
The impact of this legislation was significant in several ways:
  • The ordinance spurred the westward movement of American settlers
  • It overturned the colonial idea that newly settled lands would be subservient to established areas
  • It established the format for American land policy for years to come
  • The law provided the first national limitation upon the expansion of slavery.
Jefferson had originally proposed that slavery be prohibited after 1800. The ordinance of 1787 made the prohibition effective immediately. Nevertheless, fugitive slaves were to be taken prisoner and returned to their owners in any of the thirteen original states.