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.
In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act establishing the land-grant college system. This was a bleak time in American history, as the Civil War cast a long, dark shadow across the nation. Lincoln understood the value of education and its importance in improving the quality of life for all the country’s citizens.
“In our age of 4,000 American colleges and universities of all shapes and stripes and almost universal access to a college education, it might be hard to sense the revolutionary nature of the land-grant college concept," Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger said. “Born in a 19th century America dependent on agriculture and industry, land-grant colleges were the first schools focused on research, focused on the economy, and — this is most important — offering college education to the common man, not just the privileged class."
Before land-grant universities, higher education was expensive and exclusive. Colleges were designed to train men to join the clergy, and instruction was based on a classical curriculum focused on Latin and Greek. In the early 1800s, some schools expanded to include teaching law and medicine, but a college education was still out of reach for most Americans.
The need for a reformed and expanded educational system dominated national discussion in the 1800s. Justin Smith Morrill, a representative from Vermont, first brought the idea to Congress in 1857. The act was approved in the House and Senate, but President James Buchanan vetoed it in 1859.
Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1861 and approved the legislation the following year.
“The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people who have invested in these public institutions their hopes, their support, and their confidence,” Lincoln said at the time.
Under the Morrill Act, states received a parcel of land they could sell to establish and support a land-grant college. These universities transformed the landscape of higher education, given that they were developed to prepare farmers, engineers, educators, and scientists to solve the problems the nation faced.
“The land-grant school concept opened access to higher education like nothing before seen in the world,” said Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations.
The Morrill Act laid the cornerstone for a new educational era for the young U.S. democracy.
Although the act was signed in 1862, Virginia was ineligible to participate before its re-admission to the Union in 1870. Many of the commonwealth’s colleges vied for the land-grant distinction, but in 1872 the state legislature selected the Preston and Olin Institute in Blacksburg to be redesignated as the Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College.
The college opened Oct. 1, 1872. William Addison Caldwell walked 26 miles from his home in Craig County to the campus, becoming the first of 132 students to enroll.
A third of the Morrill money went to support the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute to educate black students. In 1887, the Hatch Act created a network of state agricultural experiment stations, which were largely connected to each state’s land-grant university. Congress passed the Second Morrill Act in 1890 to broadly extend access to higher education for blacks. In 1920, Virginia State University in Petersburg was designated as the black land-grant institution.
Today, research from Virginia Tech has helped improve the quality of life for people throughout the world. Because of Virginia Tech scientists, food is safer and its supply is more secure, water is cleaner, and grain is better able to withstand disease. Computers are faster and more energy efficient. Football players are better protected from head injuries. CHARLI, the first untethered, autonomous, full-sized walking humanoid robot, takes mechanical engineering to new heights with each step.
The act also called for all students to receive military training. Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College took that mandate several steps further, creating a military legacy that continues today in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets.
“Virginia Tech, one of the nation’s premier land-grant universities, has worked side by side with Virginians for more than a century,” said John Dooley, chief operating officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation and former vice president for Outreach and International Affairs. “Virginia Tech’s land-grant legacy includes innovations, discoveries, and monumental contributions to society.”
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.
Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger writes an open letter to the Virginia Tech community on the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act
A special website celebrates the history of the Morrill Act and how it relates to Virginia Tech, as well as information about events and exhibits celebrating the Morrill Act and Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862, and Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College opened in 1872 as Virginia's land-grant university. Photo illustration by Steven White.
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