An Historic Act ~ Lincoln Signed the Morrill Act in July, 1862 with far-reaching consequences

On July 2, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed in to law the Land Grant Act passed by Congress in June to provide funding for higher education. The bill was also known as the Morrill Act, named after its sponsor, Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont. The measure gave every state, including those of the South whenever they would reenter the Union, 30,000 acres of public land for each of its Congressional representatives. Hardly a simple piece of legislation, it was part of a much larger picture for the growth of the country. It was intended by Morrill as he later noted in a speech given at the Massachusetts Agricultural College in 1887 that –

“The land-grant colleges were founded on the idea that a higher and broader education should be placed in every State within the reach of those whose destiny assigns them to, or who may have the courage to choose industrial locations where the wealth of nations is produced; where advanced civilization unfolds its comforts, and where a much larger number of the people need wider educational advantages, and impatiently await their possession. . . . It would be a mistake to suppose it was intended that every student should become either a farmer or a mechanic when the design comprehended not only instruction for those who may hold the plow or follow a trade, but such instruction as any person might need—with “the world all before them where to choose”—and without the exclusion of those who might prefer to adhere to the classics.”

While Massachusetts Institute of Technology was one of the first college founded as a result of this legislation – even more critical of a local nature is the founding of the Massachusetts Agricultural College which today is UMass Amherst the first school in the University of Massachusetts system. UMass Lowell and its legacy schools – Lowell Normal School, Lowell State Teachers College, Lowell State, Lowell Textile School, Lowell Technological Institute, University of Lowell – are all rooted in the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862 and its expansion in 1890.

The Act has a complicated history but the far-reaching results of this 1862 legislation stand as example of what the Congress can do even in a time of war, confusion, divided loyalties and goals when a consensus is reached on a greater goal. My view is that the Morrill Act laid the foundation for all future federal legislation supporting higher education up into the 2000s.

Well-know Boston-area writer Charlie Pierce penned an article for Esquire Magazine back in 2012 on the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act. He looks at the “politics” with his usual sharpness ~ “…The triumph of the land-grant colleges was a triumph for the idea of the American political commonwealth, of the idea that we are a self-governing people, and not an administrative convenience of states…”

And from the Chronicle of Higher Education – the academic view of Christopher Loss – assistant professor of public policy and higher education at Vanderbilt University and author of Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century.

Both articles worth your time to read.