The Land Ordinance of 1785
May 20, 1785
The Land Ordinance of 1785 was the first in a series of congressional land ordinances regulating the incorporation of new western lands into the United States. The ordinance drew attention to the importance of providing for education and common schools in new territories and states. Among its provisions, the ordinance laid out how new lands were to be surveyed and sold. Included in the survey plan was a stipulation that education must be supported: “There shall be reserved the lot No. 16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools, within the said township.”1 These words made clear the important role education was to play in the new territories and, indeed, in the new country as a whole.
In conjunction with the other land ordinances that followed, the Land Ordinance of 1785 encouraged westward expansion, ensured the creation of common schools in new lands, and established the precedent of using land sales to finance education. This approach was to prove crucial in establishing a system of public colleges and universities in the 1860s and 1890s. More broadly, and of ongoing importance, the Land Ordinance made it clear that at this very early stage of national development, Congress and the national government would play a role in education.
The Land Ordinance of 1785 was passed under the original Articles of Confederation and was intended to regulate the sale of lands in the Northwest Territory, that is, those areas that today