Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act, widely known today as the Morrill Act. The act was the culmination of work over many years by many legislators, notably the legislation’s author and chief sponsor, Justin Morrill of Vermont, who was one of the long-serving members of Congress during the 19th century. Congress had passed an earlier version of Morrill’s bill in 1857, but the bill was vetoed by President James Buchanan. An earlier bill sponsored by Henry Clay that would have used federal land revenues to support education and internal improvement was also vetoed by President Andrew Jackson. In each veto case, an argument was made that the federal government had no business involving itself in educational matters or other issues that were properly the province of state governments.[1]

The Morrill Act permitted participating states to make use of the sale, rent, and/or royalties derived from property granted to the states by the federal government. If a state did not have sufficient federal land situated within its borders, the state would be granted scrip representing proceeds from federal land in other states or territories. Somewhat similar land grants had been used by the federal government for a variety of purposes, but many of those programs did not attract a great deal of interest or cooperation from state governments. The Morrill Act required participating governments to produce annual reports regarding the use of funds from both the state governors and the recipient colleges and universities.[2]

Morrill pushed for a land grant program that would support education, a cause to which he was devoted for much of his career. Morrill had relatively little formal education himself, but he was dedicated to the effort to provide higher education to people of humble station. He also favored a very particular kind of higher education, one supporting agriculture and the “mechanic arts” (today generally known as engineering).[3] At the time, many colleges and universities in America and Europe largely emphasized the classics and humanities to the exclusion of more applied fields of study. Studies focusing on seemingly more practical and career-related topics were given little attention. The successful 1862 legislation, unlike the 1857 bill, also indicated that the funding would support the teaching of “military tactics.” In light of the on-going civil war, the emphasis on military training broadened the bill’s appeal.[4] The bill gained a co-sponsor in the Senate in the person of Ben Wade of Ohio, who later would serve as president pro tempore of the chamber. Wade is remembered today as the man who would have become acting president if the senate had voted to remove President Andrew Johnson in his impeachment trial in 1868.

Opponents of the legislation included those who believed that education matters were solely the responsibility of the states. But many who took this position in 1857 were no longer in Congress in the 1860s. In fact, many were southerners who left Congress when their states seceded from the union. Other legislators, particularly from the western states, objected to the fact that land situated in their states sometimes was used to provide revenue to states in the east that lacked substantial amounts of federal land. Some objected to the legislation because they feared that the new funding would support new institutions that would compete with existing colleges and universities. As various iterations of the Morrill bill moved through Congress between 1860 and 1862, various amendments were approved to appease the objections of some critics.   Notably, the bill was amended to exclude mineral lands and to limit the amount of federal land that could be sold within any given state. Final passage was also delayed so that settlers granted federal land under the recently enacted Homestead Act could have their first choice of land.[5]

After enactment, many states used the land grant funds to support existing colleges and universities, both public and private. While the land grant system overwhelmingly has favored public institutions, a few private schools, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cornell University, and Brown University, received land grant money for some considerable time, and some continue to operate as land-grant institutions to this day.[6] In most states, however, entirely new institutions were created, generally with some reference to agriculture in their titles. These institutions became what are now known as land-grant colleges, even though the total number of schools that receive land-grant support is far greater than most people realize.

The impact of the Morrill Act is hard to overestimate. It was not the first federal grant programs offering aid to state governments, but it was one of the most important and enduring programs. In comparison to categorical aid programs that became popular in the 1960s and later, the program attached few strings with which the recipient governments had to comply. However, in comparison to its predecessors, the land-grant act imposed significant requirements upon its benefactors, particularly regarding reporting obligations and the formal commitment of  resources to particular fields of study.

The act caused a great increase in the number of higher education institutions in the country, and greatly increased the accessibility of college for many Americans of limited income who often lived far removed from population centers or the locations of extant colleges and universities. The Morrill Act was amended in 1890 by new legislation that prohibited grants to states that excluded students from higher education on the basis of race. Recipient states were also required to create universities intended to serve African-Americans. Today these schools are generally called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).[7]

The land-grant program had a huge impact in agriculture, engineering, and military science. The land-grant institutions conducted agriculture research and trained agricultural students. These institutions became a part of the Department of Agriculture’s extension service, which has disseminated research findings throughout the country.[8] By the early twentieth century, the military tactics classes that were supported by the land-grants had evolved into the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program.[9] The “mechanic arts” emphasis in the land-grant colleges built up the knowledge base and the professional identity of the engineering profession.[10] The economic implications of this support for both basic and applied science have been significant, although their exact magnitude is disputed. Research by Isaac Ehrlich, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin indicates that the returns from the land-grant schools had made the United States into an economic superpower by the early twentieth century, surpassing countries such as the United Kingdom that followed a much different higher education model.[11] In short, the Morrill Act and subsequent legislation regarding the land-grant colleges has had an astounding impact upon educational quality and access, economic growth and opportunity, and leadership in the nation’s military.

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

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[1] Duemer, Lee S. 2007. “The Agricultural Education Origins of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.” American Educational History Journal 34 (1): 135–46.

[2] Lieberman, Carl. “The Constitutional and Political Bases of Federal Aid to Higher Education, 1787-1862.” International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 3-13.

[3] Key, Scott. 1996. “Economics or Education: The Establishment of American Land-Grant Universities.” Journal of Higher Education 67 (March): 196–220.

[4] Benson, Michael T., and Hal Robert Boyd. 2018.  College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

[5] Lieberman, Carl. “The Constitutional and Political Bases of Federal Aid to Higher Education, 1787-1862.” International Social Science Review 63, no. 1 (1988): 3-13.

[6] Carstensen, Victor. 1962. “Century of the Land-Grant Colleges.” Journal of Higher Education 33 (January): 30–37.

[7] Wheatle, Katherine I. E. 2019. “Neither Just nor Equitable.” American Educational History Journal 46 (1/2/2019): 1–20.

[8] Duemer, Lee S. 2007. “The Agricultural Education Origins of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862.” American Educational History Journal 34 (1): 135–46.

[9] Benson, Michael T., and Hal Robert Boyd. 2018.  College for the Commonwealth: A Case for Higher Education in American Democracy.  Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

[10]Nienkamp, Paul. 2010. “Land-Grant Colleges and American Engineers.” American Educational History Journal 37 (1/2): 313–30.

[11] Ehrlich, Isaac, Adam Cook, and Yong Yin. 2018. “What Accounts for the US Ascendancy to Economic Superpower by the Early Twentieth Century? The Morrill Act-Human Capital Hypothesis.” Journal of Human Capital 12 (2): 233–81.

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