How did the Morrill Act of 1862 affect American Education?
How did the Morrill Act of 1862 affect American Education?
This paper is meant to give a brief introduction to the Morrill Act of 1862 and it’s effect to American Education.
The Morrill Act of 1862 is more commonly known as the Land-Grant College Act of 1862. It is still known by such a moniker today because of the many colleges that were built and sustained through the Morrill Act of 1862 and the subsequent Morrill Act of 1890. The Morrill Act of 1890 that will also be touched upon by this paper was a subsequent act that supplemented funding to the Colleges built by the Land-Grant College Act.
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This paper will first discuss the Morrill Act of 1862 and how it came about. It will touch upon the subsequent Morrill Act of 1890 as well. The succeeding sections after such an introduction will focus on the effect of the Morrill Act to American Education. More specifically, it will focus on the immediate effects of the Morrill Act after its passage and the long term effects which the Morrill Act had on American Education today.
Morrill Act of 1862
The Morrill Act of 1862 was a significant piece of legislation passed during the Civil War Congress. It is still a significant piece of legislation today because of its effects and the continuing legacy it has left to modern day America in the field of higher education.
How the Morrill Act of 1862 came about
The Morrill Act follows the namesake of its main legislator. It follows the name of Justin Smith Morrill. Morrill was a Vermont politician that defied easy characterization. During his time in the Civil War Congress, Morrill was regarded as a conservative. He opposed the eight-hour workday, women’s suffrage and even direct election of the president and the senators.
Today, his most notable accomplishment is his role in the passage of the Land-Grant College Act. The effects of this Act have been tremendous and far-reaching. These effects would be elaborated further later on. A key premise to any successful introduction as to the far reaching effects of the Act would be an understanding of the situation leading up to the passage of the Act; namely the situation in 1862. Also, a key understanding of the man and what motivated the man in the person of Justin Morrill to pioneer such an act is essential to any relevant discourse on the subject matter.
First, we discuss the man behind the legislation.
Two published biographies have been written about the man who made the Land Grant Colleges Act a reality - How did the Morrill Act of 1862 affect American Education? introduction? William B. Parker’s The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill, published in 1924; and more recently Coy F. Cross’s excellent Justin Smith Morrill: The Father of the Land-Grant Colleges, published in 1999.
This sketch of Morrill and his legacy relies on both of those works, as well as several of the hundreds of scholarly essays concerning the Land-Grant Act itself, from the politics sur-rounding its creation to the technical aspects of land distribution and revenue management under the law. Not surprisingly, there was a large volume of work and commentary in and around 1962, on the centennial of the act’s passage.
More recently, commentary and scholarship have focused on the unfinished agenda of the land-grant concept, particularly with regard to educational opportunity for minorities and the policy implications of Morrill’s idea, both in the nineteenth century and today, as public higher education faces new technological, financial, demographic, and pedagogic challenges to its historic mission.
Justin Morrill was born in Strafford, Vermont, on April 14, 1810. He had no formal education beyond secondary school. He had wanted to attend college but his father could not afford to send both him and his brothers, so elected to send none of them.
Nonetheless, by the time Morrill was elected to Congress in 1854 he had enjoyed a successful career dealing in dry goods in Vermont and also in Maine. Politics was a second career. Morrill had retired from business at the age of thirty-eight, in 1848, and settled down to build his gentleman’s farm in Strafford.
Morrill was not a political novice when the Vermont Whig Party nominated him for the state’s second congressional district in July 1854, though his experience was limited to New England, and he won his office narrowly—by a total of fifty-nine votes.
He came to office at a fortuitous time, given the legislation that would become his legacy. The United States had acquired 500,000 square miles of new territory in the 1848 treaty with Mexico. This would be the land that would spur the fulfillment of an idea to fund lower-cost education and make such higher education more affordable to every American.
The impetus for Morrill to institute reforms in higher education both came from his own tribulations and the opportunity of the times.
Morrill regretted his own lack of formal education. As a Vermonter, he saw the need for practical education in agriculture and mechanics for the working people with whom he identified. This key fact is a basic premise to understanding the events that followed which will be discussed as our second topic.
The events leading up to the passage of the Act proved as key to helping its passage.
The Civil War America was an agricultural based society. People lived and ate off the land that they toiled. However, during the Civil War time of Morrill, the production in agriculture was severely inefficient. Farmers who toiled their land made just enough for the consumption of the household that they were sustaining.
Agricultural societies had formed in the United States after the Revolutionary War and they pushed for agricultural colleges that would improve farming methods and productivity.
All of these schools suffered from a lack of quality teachers and curricula and shaky finances, but they provided fertile ground for the idea that Morrill would carry to the House floor.
Not coincidentally, the farmers and workers whom Morrill championed were the same people who, by 1862, were dying by the thousands in places like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Cold Harbor.
Speaking in Congress in 1858, Morrill decried the fact that such people had to “snatch their education, such as it is, from the crevices between labor and sleep. They grope in twilight. Our country depends upon them as its right arm to do the handiwork of the nation. Let us, then, furnish the means for that arm to acquire culture, skill, efficiency.”
A Discussion of the Act
The mechanics of the 1862 act were straightforward. Western states that still had public land to sell would actually select parcels of land that they could either sell immediately or hold until prices went up. Eastern states with no federal public land remaining within their borders (which was most of them) were given scrip, which they then had to sell to assignees to prevent any state from owning land in another.
Assignees could redeem the scrip for land. States were then to invest the proceeds from sales into the “stocks of the United States or of the States, or some other safe stocks, yielding not less than five per centum.”
This fund was to remain untouched, and the income was to pay for the “endowment, support and maintenance of at least one college” in each state.
States had their own role to play in this, since the interest from the land-grant funds was not to pay for buildings, but only for books, supplies, instruction, and so on. The states themselves had to provide the land and the buildings, though the law provided that as much as 10 percent of the capital could be used for the purchase of sites.
Even with the passage of the Act in 1862, states still had little money for buildings, few qualified teachers, and not many applicants.
Morrill tried repeatedly—first in 1872 and eleven more times through 1890—to win additional land grants or financial support for the colleges, and by 1890 he could boast that forty-eight colleges had been created as a result of his 1862 legislation.
That year he succeeded: President Benjamin Harrison signed the second Land-Grant Act into law on August 30, 1890, granting states an additional $15,000 a year initially, and rising to $25,000 per year.
This is the Morrill Act of 1890 that won additional funding for States. More significantly, it forced states to open their doors to colored students on the penalty of not receiving the funding if they did not do so. To quote the Morrill Act of 1890:
That said colleges may use a portion of this money for providing courses for the special preparation of instructors for teaching elements of agriculture and the mechanic arts:(1) Provided,(2) That no money shall be paid out under this act to any State or Territory for the support and maintenance of a college where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students… (Morrill Act of 1890)(emphasis supplied)
Effects to American Education
The Morrill act extended the possibility of higher education to the masses and included previously disenfranchised groups in the scope of higher education. It solidified the early role of the federal government in the field of higher education within states. By focusing on giving equal opportunity to low-income households to be able to send their young to these colleges, it gave new meaning to democracy and equal opportunity in the post-Civil War period. It gave intellectual force to the human and economic development of the states, and thus of the nation.
The social and economic impact of the Morrill Act and related legislation is impossible to measure, but a few quantitative measures are suggestive. Today the largest of the Land-Grant programs is the University of California, which enrolls approximately 150,000 students on its nine campuses; the smallest is Kentucky State University, with about 2,500 students. All together the Land- Grant colleges enroll about three million students annually and award about 500,000 degrees each year, including one-third of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees, 60 percent of all doctoral degrees, and 70 percent of the nation’s engineering degrees. Since 1862 they have awarded more than twenty million degrees.
For Morrill, we know his intended effect for the Act he passed. He had hoped the land-grant colleges would have benefited “those at the bottom of the ladder who want to climb up, or those who have some ambition to rise in the world but are without the means to seek far from home a higher standard of culture.” This we know by virtue of his many speeches given on the occasion of the act’s passage.
The colleges made higher education available to women and to blacks, both of whom had traditionally been excluded from educational opportunity.
As previously pointed out, the 1890 act denied funds to any school “where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students,” and essentially required Southern states to open their land-grant facilities to blacks or open separate institutions for them. Of course, the schools chose the funding and granted equal access.
Most recently, it is Native Americans who have benefited from the land- grant program. Recent legislation has authorized a $23 million endowment, to be built up over a five-year period, to support twenty-nine tribal colleges on Indian reservations throughout the United States.
There were other, less immediately obvious or even foreseeable benefits of the 1862 law. The Morrill Act helped separate religious doctrine from higher education. It also proved invaluable in the Second World War.
The nonsectarian foundations of the Morrill Act helped to separate religious doctrine from higher education. This was particularly true in the period after World War II. After World War II, huge numbers of returning servicemen swelled the rolls of land-grant colleges. This phenomenon helped to establish research as a core function of the American university.
Even at the start of the war, the act’s provision for military training at the land-grant institutions was instrumental in meeting the demands of mobilization. Morrill had presumably included the provision in response to the woeful record of Union officers in the Civil War, particularly as compared to the performance of the Confederate officer corps. However even with such purpose, it was World War II where the land-grant military training program proved invaluable.
The U.S. military was very small when the war began. It relied on about fifty thousand Reserve Officer Training Corps officers from the land-grant colleges and universities to train hundreds of thousands of civilians over a very short time.
As Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall put it, “Just what we would have done . . . without these men I do not know.” 
In the end, Justin Morrill himself could not have foreseen the many effects of his landmark legislation. He could not have foreseen that the institutions he established would in time become the preeminent system of higher education in the world.
However, the function which Morrill hoped to effect American Education is still true today. He hoped it would make higher education available to those who otherwise would not be able to obtain one. Today, we need to constantly remember such an aspiration. The beginnings of such an ideal was started no less than two centuries ago. The challenges of affordable and efficient education are still worthwhile problems that we cannot forget about.
The challenge that Morrill took on has benefited generations of Americans after him. We must continue answering that challenge in the spirit of ingenuity and nationalism that Morrill has exemplified.
Morrill Act of 1862
Morrill Act of 1890
Parker, William B. The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1924.
Cross II, Coy F. Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1999.
Morrill, Justin Smith. Speech on the Bill Granting Lands for Agricultural Colleges. United States House of Representatives, April 20, 1858. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Globe Printing Office, 8.
Andrews, Ben F. The Land Grant of 1862 and the Land-Grant Colleges. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, 1918, 10.
LaMay, Craig L. “Justin Smith Morrill and The Politics of the Land-Grant College Acts” in A Digital Gift to the Nation: Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Information Age,, ed. Lawrence K. Grossman and Newton N. Minnow, pages. 73-95. Washington, D.C.: The Century Foundation, April 2001.
National Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching Act of 1994.
Allen, Herman R. Open Door to Learning: The Land-Grant System Enters its Second Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963, 171–72.
 William B. Parker. The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1924.
 Coy F. Cross II. Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University Press, 1999.
 Cross, 5.
 Ibid., 10-12.
 Ibid., 26.
 Justin Smith Morrill. Speech on the Bill Granting Lands for Agricultural Colleges. United States House of Representatives, April 20, 1858. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Globe Printing Office, 8.
 Morrill Act of 1862.
 Ben F. Andrews. The Land Grant of 1862 and the Land-Grant Colleges. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Interior, Bureau of Education, 1918, 10.
 Cross, 86.
 Craig L. LaMay, “Justin Smith Morrill and The Politics of the Land-Grant College Acts” in A Digital Gift to the Nation: Fulfilling the Promise of the Digital and Information Age,, ed. Lawrence K. Grossman and Newton N. Minnow, pages. 73-95. Washington, D.C.: The Century Foundation, April 2001.
 Cross, 88-89.
 Morrill, Speech on the Educational Bill. 4.
 National Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching Act of 1994.
 Herman R. Allen. Open Door to Learning: The Land-Grant System Enters its Second Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963, 171–72.