On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law that forever changed higher education in the United States. Called the Morrill Act, for Justin Smith Morrill, a Vermont Congressman who championed the bill, the law is recognized for revolutionizing higher education, as it provided each state with public lands to create universities specializing in agriculture, mechanics, and military tactics.
Every fall nearly 30,000 students descend upon Blacksburg to begin classes at Virginia Tech. In October 1872, when the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College first opened its doors, no one knew how many, if any, students would attend.
A sweep of Abraham Lincoln’s pen 150 years ago led to the creation of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College, now called Virginia Tech. Without Lincoln’s decisive action, the land-grant system, which gave Americans greater access to higher education, might never have happened.
Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger writes an open letter to the Virginia Tech community on the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act
The Morrill Act paved the way for Virginia Tech to change lives and change the world.
The fight to become Virginia’s land-grant college went on for more than three years.
Legislator William T. Sutherlin argued for a “purely agricultural and mechanical” school, which would become “a nucleus around which the accretions of time would gather a really great institution.” The financially strapped Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg vowed to make agricultural and mechanical education the school’s first priority.
The Blacksburg school finally won the majority vote. A combination that paired Virginia Military Institute and the University of Virginia came in a distant second.
After approval from the House, Gov. Gilbert Walker signed the measure into law on March 19, 1872, creating the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.
In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act established the Cooperative Extension system, which broadened the mission of land-grant institutions.
The act marked the beginning of a partnership among federal government, state government, and higher education working cooperatively to find solutions for social and economic problems. The Smith-Lever Act changed the view of the university as a training ground for the elite by expanding its mission to the public domain.