American Legal History
-- SimoneGreenbaum - 31 Mar 2013

Background for Primary Source:

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was adopted by the Continental Congress on May 20, 1785. The adopted version was the third draft of the Ordinance. The Ordinance was written by a committee headed by Thomas Jefferson. The ordinance outlined the process for surveying, planning and selling townships in the western frontier. Attached is the text of the Ordinance taken from the “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875” Journals of the Continental Congress, Volume 28 pp.375-381.

My Public Education in Land Grants piece is embedded in the History section of the Land Ordinance of 1785 wikipedia page.

I also pasted it below in case it is deleted or edited.

*Public Education in Land Grants in the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 Background:*

The Land Ordinance of 1785, adopted May 20, 1785 by the Continental Congress, set the stage for an organized and community-based westward expansion in the United States in the years after the American Revolution. The Land Ordinance of 1785, coming on the heels of the Ordinance of 1784, was the effort of a five person committee led by Thomas Jefferson. The ordinance established a systematic and ubiquitous process for surveying, planning and selling townships in the western frontier.

Layout of Townships:

Each western township contained precisely six square miles of land, which was further subdivided into thirty six lots, each lot containing one square mile of land. The mathematical precision of the planning was the concerted effort of surveyors. Each township contained dedicated space for public education and other government uses, as five of the thirty six lots were reserved for government or public purposes. The thirty six lots of each township were numbered accordingly on each township's survey. The centermost land of each township corresponded to lot numbers 15, 16, 21 and 22 on the township survey, with lot number 16 dedicated specifically to public education. As the Land Ordinance of 1785 stated: "There shall be reserved the lot No. 16, of every township, for the maintenance of public schools within the said township." [1] In addition two entire townships per state were dedicated entirely for the purpose of creating a state university. Physical planning as dictated that Lot 29, dedicated to religious purposes, was separate and distant from Lot 16.


Many historians recognize the influences of the colonial experience in the land ordinances of the 1780s. [2] The committees that formulated these ordinances were inspired by the individual colonial experiences of the states that they represented. The committees attempted to implement the best practices of such states to solve the task at hand.[3] The surveyed townships of the Land Ordinance of 1785, writes historian Jonathan Hughes, “represented an amalgam of the colonial experience and ideals.”[4] Two geographically and ideologically distinct colonial land systems were competing at such time in history – the New England system and the Southern system. [5] While the primary influence on the Land Ordinance of 1785 was the New England land system of the colonial era, marked by its emphasis on community development and systematic planning, the exceedingly individualistic Southern land system also played a role.

Even though Jefferson’s committee had a Southern majority, it recommended the New England survey system. [6] The highly planned and surveyed western townships established in the Land Ordinance of 1785, were heavily influenced by the New England settlements of the colonial era, particularly the land grant provisions of the Ordinances which dedicated land towards public education and other government uses. In colonial times, New England settlements contained dedicated public space for schools and churches, which often held a central role in the community. For instance, the 1751 royal charter for Marlboro Vermont provides: “one Shear [share] for the First Settled Minister one Shear for the benefit of the School forever.”[7] By time of the Land Ordinance of 1785 was enacted, the New England states had used land grants for over a century to support public education and build new schools. The clause in the Land Ordinance of 1785 which dedicated “Lot Number 16” of each western township for public education reflected this regional New England experience.[8]

In addition, the use of surveyors to precisely chart out the new townships in the westward expansion was directly influenced by the New England land system, which similarly relied on surveyors and local committees to clearly delineate property boundaries. Defined property boundary lines and an established land title system, provided colonials with a sense of security in their land ownership, by minimizing the likelihood of ownership or boundary disputes. This was an important consideration in the Land Ordinance of 1785. One of the primary purposes of the Ordinance was to raise funds for the increasingly insolvent government. Providing land speculators security in their purchases encouraged additional demand for the western lands. In addition, the organized and communal nature of the western settlements, allowed the government to reserve a number of well-defined plots of land for future government development. Since the rest of the township would have been developed by the time the government decided to develop such reserved lands, there was an already built-in assurance of land value appreciation for the reserved lands. This had the effect of increasing the value of government assets without much further investment by the government.

The New England land system, while the primary influence on the great land ordinances of the 1780s, was not the only land system influence. The Southern land system, marked by individualism and personal initiative, also helped shape the ordinance. While the New England land system was premised on community-based development, the Southern land system was premised on individual frontiersman appropriating undeveloped land to call their own. The Southern pioneer claimed property and the local surveyor would demarcate it for him. The system did not protect people from competing claims or set up an orderly chain of title. The process was called ‘indiscriminate location”. This system encouraged individuals to amass large plantations instead of settling into dense communal development. This system was supported by the use of slave labor. [9] Perhaps the committee’s resistance against indiscriminate location and support for limited and disciplined land settlement was an implicit attempt to create a structural barrier to developing a plantation economy that was dependent on slave labor. The committee could have been attempting to effectively eradicate slavery in the West after Jefferson failed to outlaw it in the Land Ordinance of 1784.

While the Land Ordinance of 1785 created a New England style land system, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 determined how the townships would be administered. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, like the Land Ordinance of 1785, was inspired by the New England colonial settlements, and manifested this influence by further encouraging the worship of religion and the spread of education. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 stated, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[10] However, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 also contained Southern characteristics of municipal governance. The Southern influence can be felt in the Western townships in that once the federal land was dedicated to the particular township, the township was relatively free of the influence of the federal government, and the local municipality was left to govern itself. This manifested itself in public education as well. Once the land was dedicated, the actual development of the public schools was the responsibility of the local township or the particular state. [11] Although the great Ordinances of the 1780s set the framework for a national system of schools by dedicating land across the West, the devolved development and administration by the state and local government led to unique results. [12]


Retaining central land in each township ensured that these lands would create value for the federal government. Instead of disbursing funds to the new states to create public education systems dedicating a central lot in each township provided the new townships with the means to develop educational institutions without any transfer of funds. This was a practical and necessary way to achieve the committee’s goal in a pre-Constitution America. Aside from raising funds for a financially struggling government, the westward expansion outlined in the Land Ordinances of the 1780s also provided a framework for spreading democratic ideals. Jefferson proposed an article in the Ordinance of 1784 that would have outlawed slavery in the new states after the year 1800. However he could not amass enough votes to pass the anti-slavery article. The Ordinance eventually passed with the anti-slavery clause despite Jefferson’s best attempts to include it. Later Jefferson did succeed, however, in ensuring public funding of education by dedicating land to education in the Land Ordinance of 1785. Public education was an ideal already developed in the New England colonial settlements. New Englanders provided for public education in their land grants due to a belief that public education could be used to further unite the young nation and spread democratic ideals.[13]

The systematic and highly organized westward settlements, with their local governments and central square dedicated towards public education were a concerted effort to inspire civic duty and participation in the democratic process. Usher relates this initiative to “the Supreme Court in Cooper v. Roberts (1855), ‘plant in the heart of every community the same sentiments of grateful reverence for the wisdom, forecast, and magnanimous statesmanship of those who framed the institutions of these new States.” [14] The westward expansion therefore was not only a tool for raising much needed funds, but also a tool in a grand socializing experiment to inoculate the settlers to democratic ideals. The hope was that the unique planning of each township with a public school centrally located, coupled with the obligation of each township’s local citizens to take part in the civic process of governing the township, teaching and building the schools, and maintaining order, would instill the democratic ideals crucial to the nation’s success.

1. See Land Ordinance of 1785 attached 2. See Payson Jackson Treat. The National Land System. William S Hein and Co., 2003. and Jonathan Hughes “The Great Land Ordinances.” Minnesota Legal History Project (accessed March 2013). 3. Treat, p. 22-23. 4. Hughes, p.11 5. Treat, p. 22-23. 6. Treat p.26 7. Hughes, p.13 8. David Carleton, Landmark Congressional Laws on Education. Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 2002. p. 15. 9. See Treat p.25 10.The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Article 3. (Accessed March 2013). 11. Alexandra Usher, “Public Schools in the Original Federal Land Grant Program” The Center on Education Policy; April 2011 p. 8 (Accessed March 2013) 12. Usher, p. 8. 13. Carleton, p. 15 14. Usher, p. 7



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Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdf Land_Ordinance_of_1785_pp.375-381.pdf props, move 4200.1 K 31 Mar 2013 - 14:14 SimoneGreenbaum Land Ordinance of 1795
r1 - 31 Mar 2013 - 14:51:15 - SimoneGreenbaum
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