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The Northwest Ordinance

According to President Franklin Roosevelt, the Northwest Ordinance was the “highway” on which “the United States was built.” Approved by the Continental Congress on July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance established a system to govern the Northwest Territory.

The Ordinance determined that the Northwest Territory (the area east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River) would be carved into smaller territories that eventually became states.

The Ordinance also laid out a three-stage program to govern territories and prepare them for statehood.

In the first stage, the president appointed a governor, a secretary and three judges to govern a territory. In the second stage, once a territory reached a population of 5,000 free white adult males, it could elect a legislature.

The third occurred when a territory reached a population of 60,000 free residents (both male and female). The territory drafted a constitution. After obtaining congressional approval, the territory became a state. When this happened, the territory, according to the Northwest Ordinance, entered the Union “on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatsoever.”

Five states—Ohio (1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), Michigan (1837) and Wisconsin (1848)—were eventually formed out of the Northwest Territory.

The Northwest Ordinance also guaranteed that settlers living in the Northwest Territory would receive the same rights enjoyed by Americans living in the original thirteen states. These rights were later included in the Bill of Rights.

The Northwest Ordinance established a system for new states to join the Union in an orderly fashion. It was one of the most important documents in American history.

For more great stories on Michigan’s past, look to Michigan History magazine. For more information or a free trial issue, call (800) 366-3703 or visit http://www.michiganhistorymagazine.com/.