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Abraham Lincoln, the 1862 Morrill Act, and the Early History of Virginia Tech


Sept. 18, 2012 – Peter Wallenstein
Professor, Department of History, Virginia Tech
7:30pm, Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Torgersen Hall room 3100


Virginia Tech celebrates 150 years of American land-grant universities

    Spotlight on impact

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.

Delivering the land-grant promise

Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger writes an open letter to the Virginia Tech community on the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act

Video: The Morrill Act and Virginia Tech

    Morrill Act and Virginia Tech

The Morrill Act paved the way for Virginia Tech to change lives and change the world.

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.

Land-grant to Cooperative Extension

    Kentland Farm

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.