Land Ordinance of 1785


Passed by the U.S. Congress, the Land Ordinance of 1785 was designed primarily as a means of making revenue by selling land, due to the federal taxation restrictions within the Articles of Confederation. The territory it covered was primarily north of Kentucky between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, much of which was acquired during the American Revolution. The ordinance primarily established how this territory would be organized. Through a massive surveying project, it divided the land into six mile squared townships, which were then subdivided into thirty-six sections. Of these sections, the sixteenth would either be reserved as the location of a public school or the land sold on it would go to financing a public school. If land in the sixteenth section was eventually sold to a private citizen and then reclaimed by the government for a school, the landholder could receive compensation for giving up the land and relocating. This was called preemption rights. The 1785 Land Ordinance was succeeded by the Northwest Ordinance two years later. When Congress passed an act enabling the people of Illinois Territory to write a constitution and form a state government, acceptance of the Land Ordinance's provision for public schools was one of the four "propositions" that Congress offered to the constitutional convention which, if accepted, “shall be obligatory upon the United States and said state.” In August 1818, the constitutional convention accepted this proposition.

Peter S. Onuf, Statehood and Union: A History of the Northwest Ordinance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); “An Act to Enable the People of the Illinois Territory to Form a Constitution and State Government, and for the Admission of Such State into the Union on an Equal Footing with the Original States,” 18 April 1818, Statutes at Large of the United States 3 (1846):428-31; John Moses, Illinois Historical and Statistical (Chicago, IL: Fergus, 1895), 1:545.