July 13, 1787 – Continental Congress Passes the Northwest Ordinance

On this day in history, “An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North West of the River Ohio” was adopted by the Confederation Congress.


The Northwest Ordinance created the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, and established its government. It outlined the process for admitting a new state to the Union, guaranteeing that newly created states would be equal to the original thirteen states. It also established freedom of religion, right to trial by jury, and public education as rights of the people. Additionally, slavery was banned:

Art. 6. There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.”

You can read the full text of the Ordinance here.

Although many people influenced the composition of this legislation, Nathan Dane was the framer, compiler, and writer of the Ordinance, which was adopted without a single alteration.  (Dane got most of the text from previously failed ordinances, including The Ordinance of 1784, drafted by Thomas Jefferson, which was passed by Congress but never went into effect, as well as from the law of Massachusetts.) Dane was a graduate of Harvard College and practiced law for some twenty years before becoming involved first in the Massachusetts legislature and later in the Continental Congress.

Nathan Dane

Nathan Dane

Dane’s amendment banning slavery was offered at the last minute, and was quickly accepted without much discussion, to the surprise of Dane himself, who later wrote that he “had no idea the States would agree to the sixth article, prohibiting slavery….”

On August 7, 1789, first President George Washington signed a replacement, the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, in which the new U.S. Congress reaffirmed the Ordinance with slight modifications under the newly effective Constitution of the United States. The Ordinance purported to be not merely legislation that could later be amended by the Congress, but rather “the following articles shall be considered as Articles of compact between the original States and the people and states in the said territory, and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent….”


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