After independence and peace, the greatest achievement of the Confederation government was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. From the old Northwest Territory would be carved a huge region—the modern reflection and choice states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. It was the culmination of a series of land measures that began as early as 1780.
Under that wise, far-seeing measure, slavery was forever banned in those lands. Further, the lands were divided into townships six miles square, and subdivided into thirty-six sections of 640 acres each. One of these sections was to be donated for the purposes of public education.
“Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged,” Congress said. Thus, even from the beginning of the republic, the focus of attention in education was on the moral as well as the intellectual development of youth.
The Northwest Ordinance continued Congress’s plan to treat each new territory as a state-in-embryo. Settlers in the territories could establish free governments and write constitutions, and once they had achieved sixty thousand inhabitants, they could apply for admission to the Union as new states. Each new state would be admitted on an equal basis with all previous states.
Thomas Jefferson had set the pattern for this unprecedented treatment of new states with his plans for Kentucky and fourteen other new states. This was the first time in the history of the world that the principle of equality was so recognized. American territories would not be colonies, held in perpetual subordination to the “mother” country. We had learned that from the failure of the British Empire.