This mural depicts the scene at Marietta, Ohio, in the summer of 1788 when this form of territorial government was declared. Shown here is the Secretary of the Northwest Territory, Winthrop Sargent, reading the new legislation to the settlers in the region.
Following the acquisition of the Northwest Territory, the governments of the first 13 states had to make a collective decision about how to govern this land. At the end of the Revolutionary War, the necessity of the first 13 states to unite against a common enemy was gone; they now faced splitting along regional interests. If the United States failed to maintain federal authority in the west, it risked forfeiting tremendous economic resources and a vast area for growth. The new nation would also become increasingly vulnerable to disunion and competing local politics. There was a very real fear that the United States would splinter and became a new Europe - a mass of divided powers contending for territory and commerce.
The decisions about the Northwest Territory forced these states to unite again in order to reach a consensus. That consensus took the form of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Initial proposals on governing the area only included details about how to arrange for land surveys and sales. However, it became increasingly clear over time that a land system alone did not constitute an adequate framework for orderly development. The government needed to assure people of continued rights as citizens of the United States even if they moved West.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is a very rare example of a new territory not only being taken over by a nation but being allowed to enter that nation as an equal. The Northwest Ordinance set a process of milestones that, upon completion, would allow any new states carved from the territory to enter the union on equal footing with the original 13 states.
Furthermore, by predating the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Northwest Ordinance was the first document in which American citizens were guaranteed certain rights that have become iconic to what America represents. These guaranteed rights included freedom of religion, due process in legal proceedings, the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, trial by jury, protection of property, sanctity of contracts, and free public education. In addition, slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited in the new territory.
As provided for in the Northwest Ordinance, this area eventually developed into no more than 5 and no less than 3 states: Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.