The Northwest Ordinance
July 13, 1787
The Northwest Ordinance was the necessary corollary to the Land Ordinance of 1785. The latter had provided for the sale of lands in the Northwest Territory—what would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—but had not laid out in any detail the manner in which these lands would be governed. The purpose of the Northwest Ordinance was to answer questions of governance, of how, when, and under what conditions new territories would gain statehood. Article III of the ordinance included one simple sentence dealing with education: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”1 This brief clause made clear the integral role education was to play in the new republic.
The Northwest Ordinance was adopted under the Articles of Confederation and was so vague that it was not really enforceable in any meaningful sense. Its importance, however, lies in its clarity as a statement of national principle. It led the national government to take steps to in fact encourage the means of education. As a statement of principle it did not itself mandate action, but it spurred the national government to act nonetheless. In particular, it affected what provisions were actually written into land contracts in the territories, with lasting impact on the resources dedicated to education at all levels. Indeed, in considering the education clause, Daniel Webster wrote, “I doubt whether one single law or any lawgiver, ancient or modern, has produced effects of more distinct, marked, and lasting character than the Ordinance of 1787.”2 The