Morrill Act at 150: Making Higher Education Available to All

By Randolph T. Holhut

One of America’s best ideas celebrateed its 150th anniversary in July. On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law what became known as the Morrill Act, after then-Rep. Justin Morrill, its principal author.

At a time when few Americans attended college, the Morrill Act granted public lands to the states and territories to fund public agricultural colleges. In the process, the act created the modern infrastructure for higher education in the United States.

That’s why we celebrate, and still benefit from, the legacy of Justin Morrill: because people were far-sighted enough, even in a time of war, to see the benefits of an educated America.

It would be hard to imagine our nation without these land grant colleges. Morrill’s idea, inspired by the efforts of educator and activist Jonathan Baldwin Turner - that our nation needed a publicly funded system of agricultural and technical higher education for workers, farmers, and other members of the non-elite - changed American education forever.

Morrill, a Republican from Strafford, Vt., served in the US House from 1855 to 1867, and then served in the US Senate from 1867 until his death in 1898. The son of a blacksmith, Morrill wanted to go to college as a young man, but his family could not afford it.

Ironically, it was the Civil War that made this act a reality.

The legislation was first introduced in Congress in 1857 and passed in 1859, but President James Buchanan vetoed the bill. It was reintroduced by Morrill in 1861, after the war started. With the secession of the Southern states that opposed Morrill’s plan, the bill easily passed and was signed into law.

Under the act, each state received 30,000 acres of federal land, either within or near its borders, for each member of Congress it had as of the 1860 Census. The land, or proceeds from its sale, was used to establish these colleges - 106 in all.

The boldness of the idea is summed up in the words of Morrill himself: “This bill proposes to establish at least one college in every State upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil, where all of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught, where neither the higher graces of classical studies nor that military drill our country now so greatly appreciates will be entirely ignored, and where agriculture, the foundation of all present and future prosperity, may look for troops of earnest friends, studying its familiar and recondite economies, and at last elevating it to that higher level where it may fearlessly invoke comparison with the most advanced standards of the world.”

As Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) put it in a resolution marking the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, “It is difficult to overstate the profound impact and ways in which the core democratic vision behind the Morrill Act has improved the lives of Americans. Land grant institutions have opened the doors of affordable and accessible higher education for millions of students. These public institutions are the lifeblood of many communities, serving as hubs of research and innovation, as drivers of economic growth, and as laboratories for critical thinking and public debate.”

Teaching, research, and service to the working people of America are the cornerstones of the land grant university and what it has meant to the nation’s growth and development since the Civil War, particularly in rural America.

These schools have been the homes of Extension Service programs that bring advice and know-how to farmers and backyard gardeners alike. They have also been the homes of agricultural research. From George Washington Carver to Henry Wallace to Norman Borlaug, many of the greatest figures in this field got their education and did their research at land grant colleges.

Most of all, land grant schools have been the place where first-generation college students have gained access to higher education, access that never existed until the Morrill Act.

President Lincoln himself once said, “I can only say that I view education as the most important subject that we, as a people, can be engaged in.”

That’s why he signed the Morrill Act into law. Even when faced with an unprecedented national crisis, Congress and the Lincoln Administration chose to make an investment in the future of our nation. As a nation, we have benefitted ever since.

Today, however, we don’t have those kind of leaders. State and federal support for higher education has steadily dropped over the past three decades, rising tuition and fees have priced millions of students out of a college education, and our nation has suffered as a result.

The health of our economy is inseparable from the health of our public higher education system. The Morrill Act created the educational infrastructure that created the brainpower that made our nation an agricultural, economic, and scientific powerhouse in the 20th Century.

If we care to keep that leadership position in this century, our nation needs to invoke the spirit of the men who enacted the Morrill Act, and make the long-term investments needed keep our land grant colleges strong, and their doors open to all who seek to learn.

Randolph T. Holhut is news editor of The Commons ( a nonprofit weekly community newspaper published in Brattleboro, Vt. Email This originally was published in the online American Reporter (

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2012

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