July 2, 2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States of America. Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act on July 2, 1862. The Act led to the creation of numerous universities and colleges which have gone on to be some of the finest in the nation.
The photo above is of Vermont Congressman (later U.S. Senator) Justin Smith Morrill, who sponsored the legislation later named for him. The purpose of the Act was to provide each state with federal public lands for the establishment of public universities or colleges for teaching the agricultural and mechanic arts. Under the Act, each state would be allocated 30,000 acres of public land for each representative and senators the particular state had in Congress as of the Census of 1860. Therefore, the more populous states received more land than did the western states. Once the states agreed to receive the federal lands, it was up to them to either sell the lands to raise money for construction of the institution(s) or to use the land itself for the colleges.
Such an Act had first been proposed at least 20 years prior to passage, but Southern states were opposed to such a use of federal lands. When the Act was originally passed in 1859, President James Buchanan, always a friend to the South, vetoed it. With the secession of the Southern states beginning in 1860, the Act gained fresh momentum and President Lincoln signed the new Act. The states then in rebellion against the federal government were specifically banned from receiving any public lands under the legislation, but the Act was later used to expand the benefits to those states once the Civil War was over. The Act was renewed in 1890 to force the Southern states to prove that race was not used to prevent admissions of students. And in 1994 the Act was used again to provide for Native-American institutions of learning.
The Hawkeye State, Iowa, has the proud claim of being the first to accept the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862. The Act helped provide financial support to Ames College, which is now Iowa State University. The list of land-grant institutions is an impressive one. Just some of the universities are: University of Maryland; Pennsylvania State University; West Virginia University; Purdue University; Clemson; Texas A&M; Michigan State University; and The Ohio State University. There are two private universities which were created under the auspices of the Act, and they are among the best in the nation: Cornell University in New York and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Few people may have ever heard of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and even fewer have ever heard of Justin Smith Morrill. But thanks to his sponsorship of this Act, countless millions have benefited from it.
Most people know of Abraham Lincoln’s lack of formal education. By his own estimates, he had not more than twelve (12) months of formal schooling in his entire life. That fact embarrassed him throughout his life, and he was a strong supporter of education. He encouraged education in many speeches, and in personal letters to those who sought his advice.
Thanks to Representative Justin Smith Morrill and President Abraham Lincoln, all of us have excellent institutions of higher learning where we all can further our own education. We all should be grateful to these two men. The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, signed into law 150 years ago today.