Skip to Main Content


Core Historical Documents

Detailed description of the image

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

In July, 1787 as delegates representing twelve of the original thirteen States were drafting a new Constitution in Philadelphia, the Confederation Congress was meeting in New York City preparing to vote on the Northwest Ordinance. Formally approved on July 13, the act created the nation’s first organized territory covering vast stretches of land from the western boundaries of the Appalachian Mountains to the Great Lakes in the North and the Ohio River to the South.

After acquiring the territory from Great Britain as part of the settlement ending the Revolutionary War, the Confederation Congress was faced with determining how it was to be settled and governed. Among many issues to be considered were relations with the region’s indigenous peoples, sale of lands to settlers, creation of new states to be added to the Union and settling competing claims by different states of various parts of the territory.

For the first time, the national government established policies governing specified navigable waterways as “common highways” free to “the inhabitants of the said territory as to the citizens of the United States.” The Ordinance also provided for creating at least three but not more than five states which would join the Union on an equal footing with existing states and established the rules for provisional governments appointed by Congress based on population and subsequent population increases.

The Ordinance encouraged education; prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory; guaranteed the rights of jury trial, habeas corpus and freedom of religion; and banned excessive fines, ex post facto laws and cruel and unusual punishment. It further promised that lands and property would not be taken from indigenous natives without their consent and that their liberty protected.

A seminal landmark in the founding of the United States, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 rests on principles outlined by Thomas Jefferson, the author the Northwest Ordinance of 1784, and laid the groundwork for westward expansion. Read the Ordinance here.

Detailed description of the image

Virginia Declaration of Rights

As hostilities erupted between Great Britain and its thirteen colonies along the Atlantic coast of North America in the last quarter of the 18th century, the Second Continental Congress sent the “Olive Branch Petition” to King George III as a final attempt to avoid all-out war. Rebuffed by the King’s refusal to read it and his declaration that the colonists were not only traitors but were formally declared to be in rebellion, Congress voted for independence from Britain on July 2, 1776 and approved the Declaration of Independence two days later.

Even before that historic vote, New Hampshire had declared its independence and enacted its own Constitution, followed by South Carolina’s adoption of a new Constitution in March, 1776. Within months, most other states followed their example, including Virginia which approved its new Constitution on June 29, 1776. Among its drafters were James Madison and George Mason and it was accompanied by a Declaration of Rights, authored principally by Mason nearly two weeks earlier.

Consisting of sixteen articles, the Virginia Declaration of Rights affirmed the inherent rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness and safety and declared that government derives from the people who retain the right to abolish the government when the government “shall be found inadequate or contrary” to these principles. It supported separation of powers, frequent elections, term limits and asserted a list of prohibitions on government in order to protect speedy trials of impartial juries; freedom of religion and the press; due process; and other rights. It banned self-incrimination in criminal trials, cruel and unusual punishment and baseless searches and seizures.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights was the model for Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence as well as the Bill of Rights proposed by Congress in 1789 and ratified by the states in 1791. Its author and delegate to the Constitutional Convention, George Mason, was one of only three members of the Convention who refused to sign the Constitution, primarily because it did not include a Bill of Rights. Read the Virginia Declaration of Rights here.

Back to top