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The Northwest Ordinance

Members from Ohio's 99 House Districts are sworn in at the beginning of every new General Assembly.

One of the most important legislative documents in U.S. history, the Northwest Ordinance, is relatively unknown compared to its "siblings," the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federal Constitution. July 13, 1987, marked the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Northwest Ordinance. Its importance cannot be underrated, as it laid the foundation for our system of free public education, set up the mechanism for the introduction of new states to the Union, and outlawed slavery northwest of the Ohio River. In addition, it made guarantees of individual liberties that were the cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Right.


At least six states had territory affected by the terms of the Northwest Ordinance. Ohio was the first of these to enter the Union. Initially, the Ohio Territory was ruled by a military governor and three judges. Residents had no voice in government and were represented in the U.S. Congress by a non-voting delegate. It was in 1798 that the Ohio Territory gained sufficient population (5,000) of males to initiate self-government. A 22-member territorial legislature was formed, of which five members were selected to serve as territorial council.

Eligibility for statehood came in 1802, when the population reached 60,000 persons. Male voters elected delegates to a Constitutional Convention. The delegates drafted the constitution on which our state government is based. On February 19, 1803, the U.S. Congress approved the constitution and admitted Ohio as the 17th state.

The constitution called for a bicameral legislature, similar to the federal model, consisting of a House of Representatives and Senate. The first session (meeting) of the Ohio House occurred in Chillicothe on March 3, 1803 and consisted of 30 members. This first session was concerned with levying taxes, creating counties, and appropriating monies for the operation of the state.

Constitutional Conventions

Representatives Speaking
Representatives testifying in committee

In 1850, the people of Ohio voted to hold a second constitutional convention. Rapid population growth, an inadequate judicial system, legislative power, tax reform and flexibility were some of the issues that were addressed. Ohio's second constitution was completed in 1851.

Two more constitutional conventions were held to construct today's government. Each one placed more legislative power in the hand of the voters. The conventions also helped equalize the branches of government, giving the governor veto power at the third constitutional convention in 1873. The fourth and final convention was held in 1912.

Chillicothe (Ross County) served as the capital of the Ohio Territory after it separated from the Northwest Territory in 1800. It remained the capital until the government temporarily moved to the city of Zanesville (Muskingum County) in 1809. The capital returned to Chillicothe in 1812 before finally settling in Columbus in 1816.

Capitol Timeline

  • 1795 Lucas Sullivant begins surveying land for the town of Franklinton, which later becomes part of Columbus.
  • 1800 Chillicothe named territorial capital; first Statehouse erected.
  • 1803 Ohio becomes 17th state admitted to the Union.
  • 1809 Capital moves to Zanesville.
  • 1812 Capital returns to Chillicothe temporarily. Columbus named the permanent capital, and 10 acres are donated by Ohioans for Capitol Square.
  • 1816 Capital moves to Columbus.
  • 1838 Thomas Cole, landscape painter, wins third place in design competition for Statehouse. Statehouse, as completed, favors Cole's design more than first or second place designs. General Assembly authorizes Act to begin building a new Statehouse.
  • 1839 Cornerstone laid.
  • 1840 Statehouse Act repealed; work stops.
  • 1846 General Assembly passes new Statehouse Act, but prison labor shortage delays work.
  • 1848 Money is appropriated to expedite construction.
  • 1852 Original Statehouse burns to ground.
  • 1857 Legislators meet in Statehouse for first time.
  • 1859 Abraham Lincoln speaks on the east stairs of the Statehouse as part of the Lincoln/Douglas debates.
  • 1861 Statehouse is officially completed; Lincoln speaks to a joint session of the Ohio Legislature in the House Chamber.
  • 1865 Lincoln's casket is displayed in the Rotunda.
  • 1901 Judiciary Annex (the Senate Building) is completed.
  • 1906 Alice Roosevelt Longworth unveils the McKinley Monument. The largest known crowd (50,000 people) gathers on the Statehouse grounds for this event.
  • 1989 Renovation Master Plan approved.
  • 1990 Construction begins.
  • 1993 Senate Building restoration and Atrium completed.
  • 1996 On July 5th, 1996 a joint session of the legislature commemorated the reopening of the renovated state capitol.