Northwest Ordinance

The Northwest Ordinance (formally An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States, North-West of the River Ohio, and also known as the Freedom Ordinance or The Ordinance of 1787) was an act of the Congress of the Confederation of the United States (the Confederation Congress), passed July 13, 1787. The ordinance created the Northwest Territory, the first organized territory of the United States, from lands beyond the Appalachian Mountains, between British Canada and the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south. The upper Mississippi River formed the Territory's western boundary.

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...."

Arguably the single most important piece of legislation passed by members of the earlier Continental Congresses and the Confederation Congress, other than the Declaration of Independence itself and the seminal, precedent-setting "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union", it established the precedent by which the Federal government would be sovereign and expand westward across North America with the admission of new states, rather than with the expansion of existing states and their established sovereignty under the Articles of Confederation. It is the most important legislation that Congress has passed with regard to American public domain lands. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the authority of the Northwest Ordinance of 1789 within the applicable Northwest Territory as constitutional in Strader v. Graham, 51 U.S. 82, 96, 97 (1851), but did not extend the Ordinance to cover the respective states once they were admitted to the Union.

The prohibition of slavery in the territory had the practical effect of establishing the Ohio River as the boundary between free and slave territory in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This division helped set the stage for national competition over admitting free and slave states, the basis of a critical question in American politics in the 19th century until the Civil War.

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