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The Northwest Ordinance

The famous phrase “Go West, young man,” was first published in an 1851 editorial and later popularized by Horace Greeley to encourage westward expansion. Yet the words never would have been expressed so successfully without an important and farsighted directive issued six decades earlier by the Confederation Congress: The Northwest Ordinance.

In “An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States, North-west of the river Ohio,” dated July 13, 1787, the founding fathers established a model for the nation’s future growth. The territory referred to was bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with the Great Lakes as the northern border. It comprised what we now know as the states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, as well as part of Minnesota. As the United States stretched farther westward, the Northwest Ordinance ultimately laid the groundwork for the Missouri Compromise, the Homestead Act, and for establishing the rights of citizens in states and territories west of the Mississippi. A copy of the original ordinance is in the Papers of the Continental Congress.

The articles within the ordinance established religious freedom, legal and educational rights, territorial boundaries, requirements of statehood, and prohibitions on slavery. While the Northwest Ordinance promoted the welfare of all Americans, some sections were interpreted differently over time, most notably a clause in Article 3 regarding Native Americans which states “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress…”

The Northwest Ordinance may be one of the most critical legislative acts passed by the Confederation Congress (successor to the Continental Congress). It, and many more official records and legislation from the formative years of the fledgling United States of America, can be found within the Papers of the Continental Congress and Miscellaneous Papers of the Continental Congress on Fold3.


  1. Technically, the Northwest Ordinance was passed by the CONFEDERATION Congress (aka The Congress of the Confederation) — not the Continental Congress. The Confederation Congress replaced the Continental Congress upon the adoption of the Articles of Confederation in 1781. Which was in turn replaced by the United States Congress upon the adoption of the Constitution in 1789.

  2. Do you have any updates on when the main website will be up again? I’ve been trying to sign up for the past two days, and it keeps telling me to check back later…

    • It should be working fine now. We did an update the morning of the 26th, but it should have only been down for 30 minutes. If you are still having problems please give us a call at: 1-800-613-0181