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Karen Palumbo

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On This Day 7/13/1787
7/17/2011 4:48:43 PM


Congress enacts the Northwest Ordinance


Congress enacts the Northwest Ordinance, structuring settlement of the Northwest Territory and creating a policy for the addition of new states to the young nation. The members of Congress knew that if their new confederation were to survive intact, it had to resolve the states competing claims to western territory.

In 1781, Virginia began by ceding its extensive land claims to Congress, a move that made other states more comfortable in doing the same. In 1784, Thomas Jefferson first proposed a method of incorporating these western territories into the United States.

Thomas Jefferson's plan effectively turned the territories into colonies of the existing states. Ten new northwestern territories would select the constitution of an existing state and then wait until its population reached twenty thousand to join the confederation as a full member.

Congress however, feared that the new states, ten in the Northwest as well as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vermont, would quickly gain enough power to outvote the old ones and never passed the measure. Three years later, the "Northwest Ordinance" proposed that three to five new states be created from the Northwest Territory.

Instead of adopting the legal constructs of an existing state, each territory would have an appointed Governor and council. When the population reached five thousand the residents could elect their own assembly, although the Governor would retain absolute veto power.

When sixty thousand settlers resided in a territory, they could draft a constitution and petition for full statehood. The ordinance provided for civil liberties and public education within the new territories, but did not allow slavery.

Pro-slavery Southerners were willing to go along with this because they hoped that the new states would be populated by white settlers from the South. They were under the belief that although these Southerners would have no slaves of their own, they would not join the growing abolition movement of the North.



(K) (HST)

Thomas Jefferson President, USA


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