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Northwest Ordinance, 1787

The authors of the Northwest Ordinance believed educated citizens were critical to the success of self-government. Article 3 declared, “...education shall forever be encouraged.” The Northwest Ordinance, together with the earlier Land Ordinance of 1785, set aside a section of each new township’s land for the support of public schools.

Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress

Northwest Ordinance, 1787 Northwest Ordinance, 1787 Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Supporting Public Education

In the Northwest Ordinance, the nation’s first legislators laid down the principles for public education. The ordinance, which predated the Constitution, framed the plan for governing the territories “north and west of the river Ohio” and their admission to the Union. (The ordinance also banned slavery and guaranteed religious and civil freedom.) In 1789, Congress reenacted the ordinance and subsequently extended its provisions to other western territories as the United States became a transcontinental nation.