Morrill Act turns 150 years old

The Morrill Act made possible the creation of the land-grant schools and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln July 2, 1862.

Let’s celebrate a historic anniversary; the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862. The Morrill Act is the federal legislation that paved the way for the establishment of colleges in each state to teach the practical sciences of agriculture and mechanical arts, among other things. Eventually, around 70 “Land-Grant” schools were created, of which Michigan State University was the first.

The Morrill Act specifically called for education in agriculture and mechanical arts. This was critical in two regards: first, it was education for the common man “from the industrial classes” and secondly, it was education in practical careers.    

It wasn’t that there weren’t already colleges in this young country. However, higher education was reserved primarily for the wealthy, teaching a liberal education focusing on law, medicine, religion and philosophy.  

For some time prior to that, there had been a movement for federal support of higher education led by Professor Jonathan Turner of Illinois College. With his leadership, the Illinois legislature adopted a resolution for a national system of industrial colleges in 1853. But it had to be introduced to Congress.

In 1857, U.S. Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced a bill in Congress to fund the establishment of colleges through grants of federal land to each state that could be sold to raise the funds for such a college.

It proved to be a struggle to get it passed by both the U.S. House and Senate, but Morrill persevered and the bill achieved a majority in both houses only to have it vetoed by President James Buchanan.

By 1862 the political landscape had changed. Southern states had succeeded from the Union thereby eliminating some of the opposition and there was a new president, Abraham Lincoln. This time, the bill passed both houses of Congress by a wide margin and was signed by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862. That was a landmark act for this country during a critical time, and that it continues to be extremely important for the future of our citizens.

Justin Smith Morrill was an interesting story himself. He had left school at the age of 15 to go to work as a store clerk. Apparently, he had hoped to be able to go to college but was unable to afford it. Yet, in recognition of his importance in pursuing this legislation, many of the land-grant universities, including Michigan State University, have buildings named for him.  

The Morrill Act gave federal land to states in proportion to their congressional representation: 30,000 acres per each member of congress per state based on the 1860 census. Since the House of Representatives is proportional to population, that meant that the populated eastern states would get more land and had more votes to pass the legislation.

States would be given title to land within their own boundaries. Land within their states sold for $1.25 per acre according to the act. If there was not enough land for that purpose, they would be given “scrip” for land in western territories. They could actually pick their land.

The Morrill Act opened up education to “blue collar” families and provided a scientific underpinning for agriculture and other practical careers. It also made higher education available in the western areas.

The Morrill Act did something else too, it emphasized the science of agriculture, saying that it needs to be researched and studied. One could argue that the Morrill Act led to the Hatch Act of 1887 which funded research, particularly agricultural research, at these colleges and then later to the Smith-lever Act which established the Extension system to take the results to the people.

While the passage of the Morrill Act was a step forward, it was not carried out equally well across the nation. African-Americans were excluded in many cases. Therefore, a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890 aimed at the former Confederate States. This act required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion or else to designate a separate land-grant institution for persons of color.

Finally, there was a third Morrill Act in 1994 that provided funds for colleges for Native Americans. These later two additions were certainly in agreement with the spirit of the first Morrill Act that really did mean to provide educational opportunity for all.

What does the Morrill Act mean today? I believe it is the continuing commitment of this country to the advancement of science and the application of that science for the benefit of all its citizens. I believe it is the recognition that agriculture is critical to our strength as a country. There is no question that in agriculture there are still questions to be answered by research and knowledge to be put to use not only for better businesses and a healthier lifestyle but also for an agricultural industry that truly meets the demands of a complex society.

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