US Higher Education’s “Most Important Document”

Justin Smith MorrillAccording to an item at Inside Higher Ed on Tuesday,

One of the most important documents in the history of American higher education — the Morrill Act … — has not been viewed in public since 1979 and has never been seen outside of Washington. But next week, the original law signed by President Lincoln to create the nation’s land grant universities will go on display at Iowa State University, as part of a special exhibit on the impact of the act and the 150th anniversary of Iowa State, which was designated as a land grant early in its history.

Why was the Morrill Act so significant? Because it essentially made possible the system of public colleges and universities that is, to this day, the backbone of American post-secondary education. There were, of course, a number of private schools in existence in 1861, most in the east. Getting advanced practical education in other parts of the rapidly expanding country, however, was difficult at best. The Morrill Act of 1861 changed all that, granting to states federal land which could be used to finance the building of colleges to serve their local populations. According to the Iowa State University press release,

The signing of the Morrill Act brought higher education to the federal level in the United States by requiring courses in agriculture, mechanical arts, military tactics and liberal arts and sciences without discriminating against gender, race or wealth.

The first state to take advantage of the Act was Iowa, using it to expand Iowa State University. Michigan State University was another early land grant school, considered a “model” of its kind.

According to the Wikipedia entry for the Morrill Act:

Under the act, each eligible state received a total of 30,000 acres (121 km²) of federal land, either within or contiguous to its boundaries, for each member of congress the state had as of the census of 1860. This land, or the proceeds from its sale, was to be used toward establishing and funding the educational institutions described above.

Named after its proposer — Vermont’s congressional representative Justin Smith Morrill — the Act was first proposed in 1857 and passed by Congress in 1859. This original version was vetoed by the president of the day, James Buchanan. After Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election, the Act was passed again in 1861 and signed by Lincoln that year… all this during opening phase of the Civil War.

By the time the Act was superseded in 1890, more than 17 million acres of land had been granted to colleges across the country. The 1890 revision of the Act made possible the colleges that are now known as “historically black,” which allowed for the delivery of advanced education to the African-American population at a time when many US colleges would not admit people of color.

Many important departments of psychology arose at colleges that were founded as a result of the Morrill Act, including the Universities of California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin; as well as Cornell, Purdue, and Rutgers Universities.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.