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 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.