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Lincoln & Morrill: Passing the 1862 Morrill Act

By Stephen O'Hara

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.

As a Congressman, Justin Smith Morrill (born April 14, 1810) made a reputation for himself within Whig and Republican circles. Morrill's family could not afford to send him to college, so he spent his years working as a store clerk and bookkeeper. Morrill retired at age 38, having amassed some wealth through wise stock investments and turned to a life of farming. In 1854 Morrill was called to public service and nominated for an open seat in the House of Representatives. Morrill had never before served in public office – save for Justice of the Peace – but was well-liked and respected throughout Vermont and won the coveted House seat. For the next 43 years, Morrill represented Vermont in either Congress or the Senate.

Morrill first introduced his revolutionary land-grant college bill to the House of Representatives in December 1857. Morrill had many reasons for his interest in agricultural schools, not the least of which being the diminution in quality of American soil. He also cited his father, a blacksmith who never spent more than six weeks inside of a schoolhouse, as inspiration for adding mechanical education to the schools. Historians also credit Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a professor at Illinois College, with pioneering the idea for industrial schools and influencing Morrill. When the bill reached the House floor in April 1858, Morrill delivered an impassioned speech to support it. He framed the bill as a matter of "public justice " and believed that agricultural colleges would allow the United States to compete with foreign nations. Morrill saw that vast amounts of American soil were being exhausted. He believed that agricultural colleges could teach new techniques and foster innovation and experimentation. Noting that numerous European countries had similar schools, Morrill called for the United States to develop its own system. He believed that the country should do "something for every owner of land... and something to increase the loveliness of the American landscape."

The bill met with stiff resistance in the increasingly politicized and sectionalized Congress. However, it narrowly passed both the House and Senate before President James Buchanan, who adopted a strict constructionist understanding of the Constitution, vetoed it in February 1859. Undeterred, Morrill reintroduced the bill after Lincoln's election. The secession of the Southern states altered the political make-up of Congress, and the bill passed both houses easily. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law on July 2, 1862.

Just how much influence Lincoln had over the passage of the Morrill Act has been a topic of debate among historians. Most believe that Lincoln had little direct influence in guiding the bill through Congress. The demands of the Civil War consumed Lincoln's attention. A Republican-dominated Congress afforded Lincoln the luxury of not having to actively petition for the passage of domestic bills. Nevertheless, Lincoln had always maintained a keen interest in expanding education to Americans. As early as 1832, Lincoln asserted his hope to play some hand in such an expansion, saying that education should become more general – as opposed to colleges that primarily taught medicine and law – and thereby promote the public's "morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry."

Lincoln's passage of the Morrill Act, combined with the 1862 Homestead Act and the establishment of the Department of Agriculture, formed a triumvirate that revolutionized both agriculture and education in the United States. Historian Phillip Shaw Paludan notes that "expanding prosperity opened up opportunities that in turn increased independent workers." The Morrill act took 5 years to pass – overcoming one presidential veto along the way – but Morrill and Lincoln changed American higher education forever, a legacy that lives on today.

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The war of the colleges

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.

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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.