Northwest Ordinance Revolutionizes Addition of New States to the Union

U.S. #795 pictures two men who played large roles in the Northwest territory – Manasseh Cutler and Rufus Putnam.

The United States passed the Northwest Ordinance on July 13, 1787 to establish a set of steps all future states would have to follow. It was ground breaking at the time and led to the organized and rapid expansion of America.

U.S. #837 pictures Gutzon Borglum’s memorial statue, Colonization of the West, located in Marietta, Ohio.

As part of the United States’ victory in the Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded a 260,000 square mile territory to the young nation. As states filed competing claims for the same land, the government sought a way to bypass the confusion. Early attempts at such legislation failed to make it through Congress. Then in 1787 Manasseh Cutler (the man on the left side of U.S. #795) and others drafted the Northwest Ordinance.

The ordinance established a government for the area north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania, and illustrated the steps a territory would need to take to achieve statehood. It set ground rules for how states would be created out of the Northwest Territory, as well as any future states, with room for amendments. Under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, a territory would be admitted as a state when its population reached 60,000 people.

U.S. #UX124 – 1988 Northwest Territory First Day Postal Card.

The ordinance was passed on July 13, 1787, and made settling the Northwest Territory very attractive. It was quickly followed by an influx of settlers to the territory. Among these was Rufus Putnam (pictured on the right of U.S. #795) who founded Marietta, Ohio in the new territory and served as one of its first judges. The territory was quickly settled and eventually became five U.S. states: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It also included part of Minnesota.

U.S. #795 FDC – Northwest Ordinance plate block First Day Cover.

The Northwest Ordinance laid the foundation for democracy in the American West. The law prohibited slavery, and guaranteed freedom of religion and trial by jury. It also called for the fair treatment of American Indians.

U.S. #837 FDC – Northwest Territory First Day Cover.

In 1797, future president William Henry Harrison was appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory, also acting as governor when Governor Arthur St. Clair was unavailable. Two years later, Harrison became the Northwest Territory’s first delegate to the Sixth United States Congress.

U.S. #814 – From the 1938 Prexies.

As a territory delegate (as opposed to a state delegate) Harrison was not permitted to vote on bills, but he could serve on committees, submit legislation, and debate. While in this position, he created the Harrison Land Act, making it easier for settlers to purchase land in the Northwest Territory by selling it in small sections. The legislation also allowed working-class Americans to purchase government land on credit in the Northwest Territory. In 1800, Harrison served on the committee that decided how to divide the Northwest Territory, establishing the Ohio and Indiana Territories.

Click here to read last year’s discussion about This Day in History.

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  1. I have thought for quite some time that the Northwest Ordinance, with its anti-slavery provision, has not been given enough credit for aiding in the effort to abolish slavery in our nation. Don’t understand why historians have tended to overlook its significance in that regard.

  2. I am glad to see an expanded discussion for This Day in History when compared to last year. Theses are important dates in history and you deserve a lot of credit for the work you have done. Will you be doing the same topics as last year in the future or select different subjects if available?

    1. Hi Stephen – Thank you for the kind words. In terms of topics, it will be a mixture. Thank you for the support.

  3. Very good article.

    The Northwest Ordinance was one of the most important documents in American history, and almost unknown to most citizens. Its prohibition of slavery was the first real attempt to confront the evil of slavery by halting its expansion.

  4. I was pleased to read that there were some members of the Northwest Ordinance,who tried to end the
    evil of slavery. I was not aware of the important document “Northwest Ordinance.
    I am an 84 year old black American and I enjoy reading your daily stamps of history.
    Keep up the good news.

  5. This ordanacne was one of the pivotal events which would ultemately lead to the American Civil War. By creating states in which the population was prohibitted from owning slaves, the southern states wouls begin to feel the pull of the Federalist movement that would been seen as a way to relegate the south into the “also ran” category in Congressional reperesentation. The same sentiment of “no taxation without representation” began to move across the south until, just as with the original 13 colonies, the south felt it had no option but to ceceede. It was this sentiment of lack of representation and states rights, and not the question of slavery (and keep in mind that 4 NORTHERN states KEPT slavery during the civil war) that fueled the Civil War.

    1. It sounds like you still feel sorry for the injustice done to those poor Southern states. Pathetic. Thank God the Union felt it had no option but to crush the South and END SLAVERY.

      1. Slavery would have ended in a few years anuyway as it was becoming far too expensive even for the South. keep in mind as well, that slavery did not end with the end of the Civil War, but was continued in four northern states until the 14th ammendment was pased in 1875. After the war the freed blacks soon found that they were only freed in name, as northern industrilists used them to replace more expensive Irish and Italian labor and the blacks suddenly found they were noe ECONOMIC slaves. The only real accomplishment of the Civil War was the economic destruction of the south to aid in the take over by the Carpetbaggers, and the needless deaths of millions of American boys on both sides of the battle.

  6. I went to school so long ago that they actually taught this in our history class. How times have changed. Some folks that travel wonder why the city streets in the east are so convoluted and those in the west so organized. Give thanks to the Northwest Ordinance. All cities were to be 36 block square with streets running north-south and east-west. One square was to be dedicated to a church and one to a school. The Mississippi was the dividing line. Think about that lasting effect on our nation.

  7. This piece of history should be more widely known by Americans. I was familiar with it from an early age, having grown up in Athens, Ohio. Ohio University (where my father taught) in Athens is the first institution of higher learning in the Northwest Territory. It’s oldest building is Cutler Hall, and my wife attended Rufus Putnam elementary school in Athens.

  8. Coming from the far west it has been difficult to understand how something that far east could be called the Northwest territories and a University in Chicago coiuld be called Northwestern. This article explained a lot of it. At that time noone considered expansion beyond the Mississippi. Thanks again, and keep up the good work.

    1. Rufus Putnam was born in Worcester County Mass., His home in RutlandbMass is still there and used as an inn. When I was a youngster one of the customers on my paper route were two elderly ladies named Putnam. In the entryway of their house was a large painting picturing a very distinguished Military Officer on horseback. After reading this I believe they were relatives of Rufus and the picture was of him. Will try to research this further.

  9. Your new addition which you started on your anniversary, July 1, and titled, “What else happened on this day in History”, shows a marked evolution in your product. In comparing original articles from last year to this year’s edition there is a marked upgrade in quality and detail. It appears that your numbers are up in both quantity and positive responses as well. Incidentally, I was one of those who initially indicated that you should stick to one article per day. So I flip-flopped. Why not? After all this is an election year.

  10. In 8th grade, in 1960, our jr.high had an Ohio history class. The Northwest Ordinance was part of the program. We were quite aware of our heritage. I wonder if this is still taught in our schools. The present culture must feel this is irrelevant.

  11. I had never heard of this Ordinance. It helps explain some of the questions I previously had about western expansion. Thank you.

  12. I think it kind of odd that what everybody sees in this is that it prohibited slavery and the
    “fair treatment of American Indians”. While slavery was wrong from start to finish (and not everybody in the south owned slaves). I find it interesting that then and still now the “fair treatment of American Indians” is over looked. How was it fair that the land was taken and they were forced to reservations and if they did not like it well they were just killed off in great numbers.

  13. Thanks Mystic,
    I graduated from public high school in 1974. Today is the first time I’ve ever heard of the Northwest Ordinance. What a great idea: “The law prohibited slavery, and guaranteed freedom of religion and trial by jury. It also called for the fair treatment of American Indians.”

    I am going to ask my history teacher neighbor: Tell me, what do you know about the Northwest ordinance?

  14. It goes to show that what is written and is the”law”, may not always be carried out. Where is the compassion that the United States regards so highly, towards the native Americans?

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