Lesson Plan-Northwest Ordinance of 1787

Taken from Lessons on the Northwest Ordinance of 1787
Learning materials for secondary school courses in American history, government, and civics
by John J. Patrick
developed by the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education
September 1987

What is the 1787 Northwest Ordinance?

Preview of Main Points

This lesson defines the Northwest Ordinance. Main ideas in the document are clarified and discussed. Ideas on governance and civil liberties and rights are highlighted.

Curriculum Connection

This lesson is suitable for use in American history courses in junior high/middle schools and in high school courses in American history, government, and civics. Teachers of junior high/middle school students, however, might want to assign only items 1 to 3 at the end of the lesson; items 4 to 6 are more complicated and challenging. High school history and government teachers might want to have their students read the Northwest Ordinance in addition to the material for students provided in this lesson.


Students are expected to:

  1. Define key terms in the Northwest Ordinance.
  2. Describe main characteristics of the process by which a territory could move to statehood under the Northwest Ordinance.
  3. Identify civil liberties and rights guaranteed by the Northwest Ordinance.
  4. Compare and contrast civil liberties and rights in the Northwest Ordinance with those in the Constitution of 1787 and of the Constitution as amended in 1791.
  5. Make judgments about the importance or worth of main ideas in the Northwest Ordinance.

Suggestions for Teaching the Lesson

Opening the Lesson. Ask students to read the introduction to this lesson, which is covered in the first two paragraphs on the first page of the lesson. Then ask them if they have ever heard of the Northwest Ordinance. Poll students informally to find out what they know about this document and its significance in American history. Use this introduction to the lesson to establish the main purposes or objectives of the subsequent reading assignment.

Developing the Lesson

Have students read the entire lesson. Assign items 1 to 3 at the end of the lesson. High school teachers also might want to have students read the entire document after they read the lesson, which can serve as an introduction and overview of main ideas in the document. Teachers who choose this approach will find it convenient to make and distribute copies of the Northwest Ordinance.
Conduct a class discussion of responses to items 1 to 3 at the end of this lesson. Make use of the table in the lesson to focus attention of students on main provisions of the governance procedures in the Northwest Ordinance.

Concluding the Lesson

Teachers of eighth grade students might want to conclude the lesson with a discussion of the relative importance of different civil liberties and rights in the Northwest Ordinance.

High school teachers, and some eighth grade teachers, might conclude the lesson by assigning items 4 to 6 at the end of the lesson. Item 4 is the most complicated and challenging of these items and perhaps should be reserved for high school students only.
Teachers who assign item 6, the essay, might wish to select two or three students to read their essays to the class and to invite responses to the essays as a way of launching a class discussion about the importance of the Northwest Ordinance today and in the past.