The Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 provided funding for the establishment of land grant colleges and universities in the United States. Under the Morrill Act of 1862, each state received 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative in the House of Representatives it had been awarded by the census of 1860. States were then able to sell the land and create trust funds to finance educational programming. Thus, the act not only made land available for homesteaders who would help to populate expanding parts of the United States but also provided some funding for states to establish colleges and universities. The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, provided greater funding for the schools established by the 1862 act and also led to the establishment of a number of colleges for African American students. This entry reviews the history and legacy of this legislation.
The Morrill Act of 1862
The Morrill Act of 1862 was spearheaded by Justin S. Morrill, a U.S. Representative from Vermont during the Civil War. Initially, he had advocated legislation to create a national agricultural school similar to West Point, but it was vetoed by President Buchanan. This defeat was a temporary setback, because Morrill went on to labor long and hard to bring a revised version of his bill to the next president’s desk.
On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the first Morrill Land Grant Act. This act would initiate a revolution in American higher education, as it provided states with the funds they would use for
the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts . . . to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.
Justin S. Morrill, the author of the act, was born in Vermont and had to leave school at age 15. He never attended college but was involved in agriculture and other businesses. As his entrepreneurship flourished, he was able to build a magnificent residence and, in 1854, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for 12 years. Morrill, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1867 and served until his death in 1898, was also involved in the creation of the Library of Congress and the Washington Monument. Further, he was instrumental in the enactment of the Morrill Land Grant of 1890, the Second Morrill Act, which provided funds for colleges for Black students.
The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890
The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890, also known as the Agricultural College Act of 1890, helped with the creation of agricultural colleges and mechanical curricula while being designed to bring higher education to former slaves, as they were unable to gain entrance to colleges and universities for Whites. This act led to the creation of 17 historically Black land grant colleges in the former Confederate states, which had the apparently unintended consequence of buttressing racial segregation in higher education, insofar as the act called on states either to admit freed slaves to their existing land grant colleges and universities or to create new postsecondary institutions for qualified students.
As institutions of higher learning were created for Blacks under the Second Morrill Act, there was a significant difference of opinion between two leading Black educators as to the benefits of the agricultural and mechanical colleges. Booker T. Washington was a proponent of the agricultural and mechanical college concept as a way for Black people to achieve prosperity through learning and practicing the trades. Conversely, W. E. B. Du Bois was not in favor of having Black students study to become skilled tradespeople, because he wanted them to pursue leadership roles by obtaining a college education.
Impact of the Morrill Acts
The Morrill Land Grant Acts changed American higher education insofar as Morrill wanted land grant colleges and universities to offer both liberal education and training not only for the leisure class but for people who wanted and needed instruction in the pursuits of life. In addition, Morrill believed that these institutions of higher learning should focus on improving American agriculture. Morrill thus had a vision of these colleges becoming partners in the growth and development of America. The Morrill Acts led to great changes in American society by opening up higher education to working-class men, women, minorities, and immigrants and giving them the education to succeed in a changing society.
At the same time, it is important to note that the Hatch Act of 1887 created agricultural experimentation stations that would bring theory into the fields of agriculture and improve the yield per acre as the agents worked with farmers to show them ways to increase production. During the last third of the 19th century, almost 60% of the U.S. population was engaged in agriculture. By way of stark contrast, in 2009 about 2% of the U.S. population produces the food and fiber for a nation of more than 300 million people and exports its surplus to other nations.
The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created cooperative extensions that “shall consist of instruction and practical demonstration in agriculture and home economics to persons not attending or resident in said colleges in the several communities, and imparting to such persons information on said subjects through field demonstrations, publications and otherwise. . . .” The impact of this legislation can be seen in the work of the extension agents with and for farmers and the production of food in this country. The cooperative extension helped expand the number of acres devoted to the raising of wheat from 47 million acres in 1913 to 74 million acres in 1919. The cooperative extension agents still are at work with farmers, as productivity per person has continued to increase. It is also worth observing that 20 Native American tribal colleges gained land grant status. They did not receive land but received federal funds.
At present, 105 land grant colleges, products of the Morrill Acts, operate in the United States and its territories. These opportunities for higher education for many Americans were made possible by a person who never had a formal degree but who has a stamp issued in his memory and buildings at many colleges and universities named for him. Morrill’s vision of higher education benefits American students in the 21st century.
Robert J. Safransky
See also Historically Black Colleges and Universities; Loans and Federal Aid
Agricultural College Act of 1890 (Second Morrill Land Grant Act), ch. 841, 26 Stat. 417, 7 U.S.C. §§ 322 et seq.
Hatch Act of 1887, ch. 314, 24 Stat. 440, 7 U.S.C. §§ 361a et seq.
Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, ch. 130, 12 Stat. 503, 7 U.S.C. §§ 301 et seq.
Smith-Lever Act of 1914, 7 U.S.C. §§ 343 et seq.