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The Commons
Voices / Editorial

Justin Smith Morrill and the democratization of higher education

Originally published in The Commons issue #158 (Wednesday, June 27, 2012).



Vermont has contributed many good ideas to the nation, but one of our best ideas celebrates its 150th anniversary next week.

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.

Morrill, a Republican from Strafford, served in the U.S. House from 1855 to 1867, and then served in the U.S. 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.

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.

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.”

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.

In Vermont, it led to the creation of the modern University of Vermont, which was founded as a private university in 1791. It ultimately merged with the Vermont Agricultural College in 1865 to transform UVM into the engine that drove the state’s agricultural economy in the succeeding decades.

* * *

As Sen. Patrick Leahy 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,” Leahy continued. “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.”

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.

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 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.

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