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Congressional Lions: Justin Smith Morrill


He is not a household name, but Justin Smith Morrill was one of the most important members of Congress in American history. I discuss his life and career in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.

Morrill was the principal author of the Morrill Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act, a bill that passed the Congress in 1862. President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law on July 2 of that year.

According to the statute, each eligible state—rebellious states in the Civil War were excluded—would receive a total of 30,000 acres of land for each member of Congress who represented the state, as reflected in the 1860 census. The land, or proceeds from the sale of the land, would be used to establish a land-grant college. The purpose of such a college was “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” The law created one of the most effective educational programs in United States history.

At the time he sponsored the bill, Morrill was a congressman from Vermont. He later served as a United States senator. When he died, Morrill’s length of service—stretching from March 4, 1855, until his death on December 28, 1898, for a total of 43 years and 299 days—made him the longest serving member of Congress. His record has since been eclipsed, and as of this writing, he ranks 18th in longevity.

He was born in Strafford, Vermont, on April 14, 1810, the second of 10 children. Like many children in that time and place, Justin Morrill’s formal education was brief. He first learned to read the Bible from his mother at home. Later, he attended Thetford Academy and Randolph Academy. He also attended bookkeeping classes and worked as a merchant’s clerk.

At the age of 16, Morrill began working in a store owned by Judge Jedediah Hyde Harris, a prominent Strafford citizen. In 1828, Morrill moved to Portland, Maine, to seek his fame and fortune. There he served as a bookkeeper for a business firm and learned about the world of finance and investment. By 1831, he had returned to Strafford to form a partnership with Judge Harris, who capitalized the venture. Afterward, Harris retired to his farm while Morrill operated the business. With the money he earned, Morrill invested in railroads, real estate, and banks. By the late 1840s, he had amassed so much wealth that he could retire to a comfortable life as a gentleman farmer. He was not yet 40 years old.

As his stature in Strafford grew, Morrill’s interest in politics grew as well. He considered himself a member of the Whig Party, working his way through the ranks of prominent Whigs in Vermont, serving as chairman of the Orange County Whig Committee as well as the Vermont Whig Committee. In 1852, he was a delegate to the Whig National Convention in Baltimore, Maryland. The party selected General Winfield Scott as its presidential nominee. By this time, however, the Whigs were a dying breed. Scott lost the general election in the fall, and the party collapsed within a few years.

Even as his party dissolved, Justin Morrill’s political fortunes improved. He was a self-made man, well known in his town, and highly regarded. When the Whigs sought out an attractive candidate to run for an open seat in the United States House of Representatives, he was at the top of the list. In 1854, Congressman Andrew Tracy unexpectedly announced that he would not seek reelection to the Second Congressional District. That created an opportunity for a tried-and-true Whig to succeed him.

Although he had never held elective office beyond serving as a justice of the peace, the 44-year-old Morrill had spent a lifetime preparing. Despite his lack of a formal education beyond the primary grades, he was well-read and understood economic and political issues better than almost all of his peers. The Whigs asked him to stand for the post, and he agreed.

He won his election and took his seat in the Thirty-fourth Congress in 1855. The Vermont congressman used his understanding of economics and finance to good effect, eventually joining the Ways and Means Committee in 1858, and serving as chairman during the Thirty-ninth Congress from 1865 until 1867. He later served on the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, sometimes known as the Joint Committee of Fifteen, which helped to develop and implement Reconstruction policies following the Civil War. Among its notable achievements, the committee drafted the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which applied equal protection and due process requirements to the states.

He made his reputation, however, by sponsoring the Land-Grant College Act, commonly known as the Morrill Act. As he later explained, during the 1850s he took up the cause of improving agriculture in the United States after he realized that northeastern farmers were suffering from lower yields while English farming techniques were improving. The difference, he observed, was that the English were investing time and money in scientific cultivation. Their farmers benefited from instruction in agricultural and mechanical arts. In the United States, however, colleges offered courses for doctors, lawyers, and engineers to study the classics, but nowhere did the curriculum include practical classes for farmers.

On February 28, 1856, Morrill offered a resolution in the House Agriculture Committee to create a board of agriculture as well as “one or more national agricultural schools upon the basis of the naval and military academies.” Under this plan, one student from each congressional district and two from each state at large could “receive a scientific and practical education at the public expense” in one of the schools created by the law. After Congressman Laurence Keitt of South Carolina objected, the committee did not take up the resolution. It languished in the committee.

The plan was not original with Morrill, nor did he claim that it was. The desire for public agricultural education to aid farmers in improving their crop yields extended back to the eighteenth century. No less a public figure than George Washington had remarked on the poor state of knowledge about farming practices. In his first address to Congress, President Washington had emphasized the importance of agriculture to the national interest. Similarly, President Jefferson told Congress that agriculture was crucial to the nation’s well-being. He proposed a constitutional amendment to permit the sale of public lands to fund education. The master legislator Henry Clay even championed a bill in 1833 to sell public lands and distribute the proceeds to the states, but President Andrew Jackson vetoed the measure because he did not believe the federal government possessed the authority to use federal funds for state development.

By the time Morrill arrived on the scene, an abolitionist professor from Illinois, James Baldwin Turner, had long argued against “effeminate” studies from impractical books, which ignored the physical, social, and moral effects of education. For Turner, education needed to have a real-world effect, and agricultural studies were as real-world as it got. He had been calling for a new model of education—otherwise university study “will make mushrooms and monks rather than manhood and men”—and he needed a legislative champion to make it happen.

Tapping into this long tradition, Morrill persevered in his quest to become exactly that legislative champion. In December 1857, he introduced a “Bill Granting Lands for Agricultural Colleges,” and he asked that it be assigned to the House Agriculture Committee. A Virginia congressman, John Letcher objected, recommending that it be referred to the Committee on Public Lands. It was a shrewd move. Morrill understood that the chairman of the Committee on Public Lands, Williamson R. W. Cobb of Alabama, opposed the measure, as did most members of his committee. Referral into Public Lands was potentially a death sentence for the bill. Morrill used all of his skills as a legislator to navigate the bill through the House. His allies in the Senate maneuvered through that body as well. Alas, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill.

Temporarily defeated, Morrill refused to abandon the plan. As he had remarked in 1858, a “universal hunger” existed among farmers and agriculturists for a “profounder information touching that which comes home to their businesses and bosoms. They know there are mysteries concerning them, and they demand of learning and of science a solution.” A presidential election was looming in 1860, and he hoped that if a new man occupied the executive chair, he would be more sympathetic to the land-grant system.

Morrill's strategy was sound. The man elected president in 1860, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, was indeed more likely to approve a land-grant college proposal. Having been denied a formal education as a child, Lincoln supported attempts to increase access to educational opportunities for all citizens. Events overtook Lincoln’s administration at the outset, however, as southern states seceded from the Union and the two sections entered into a shooting war in April 1861.

It wasn’t until December 16 of that year that Morrill introduced a slightly revised version of the earlier bill. Originally, each eligible state was to receive a total of 20,000 acres of land for each member of Congress who represented the state. In the new iteration, he increased the land allotment to 30,000 acres. He also included a provision allowing the schools to teach military tactics, a recognition of the realities of war.

This time, when the bill passed the Congress, the president signed the measure into law. The Morrill Land-Grant Agricultural and Mechanical College Act of 1862 was part of a larger evolution in American government. The 1860s saw enormous changes in federal land policy. President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 into law on May 20, providing settlers with 160 acres of land if they would farm the area. On July 1, 1862, the day before he signed the Land-Grant College bill, he signed into law a measure to provide for construction of a transcontinental railroad, which transferred millions of acres of public land to railroad companies.

The Land-Grant College Act provided 30,000 acres of public land to each state according to the number of members of Congress. Therefore, a state with a congressional delegation of 10 would receive 300,000 acres of public land. In the western states, public officials would select the specific parcels of land and either immediately sell it or hold the parcels until prices increased. If a state had no public land, it would receive scrip that could be redeemed for parcels of land. States were directed to create a “perpetual fund” by investing the proceeds of land or scrip sales in “stocks of the United States or of the States, or some other safe stocks, yielding not less than five per centum.” The capital would never be touched or exhausted, but would be used to pay for “the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college” in each state. Describing the purpose of the new law, Morrill remarked, “The bounty of the national government formed a nucleus in the several states around which buildings, libraries, laboratories, museums, workshops, gymnasiums, military halls and other educational appliances were expected to be assembled, from funds derived from other and independent sources.”

In the early days after the law was enacted, the land-grant college system was not an unbridled success. The states that sold their scrip in the glutted market received less than a dollar an acre, and only nine states received more than $1.25 an acre. Cornell University, New York’s land-grant institution, was an exception, holding out for $5.82 an acre.

Morrill moved on to other triumphs in his congressional career, but he remained vitally interested in land-grant colleges. In 1872, he pushed a plan to create a permanent fund from additional public land sales. When the measure failed to pass, he continually revisited the issue. For 18 years, as he advanced from the House of Representatives into the Senate, he lobbied for amendments to the 1862 act. Finally, he succeeded. On August 30, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed into law a second Land-Grant College Act.

The 48 colleges created by the 1862 statute were “sending forth a large number of vigorous young men to scientific, agricultural, mechanical, educational, and other industrial careers,” but the 1890 law went further. It provided $15,000 in additional funding per year for the existing land-grant colleges, gradually increasing the amount to $25,000 a year. Incredibly, given the racial prejudice of the time, the law included a provision indicating that “where a distinction of race or color is made in the admission of students,” the college would receive no funding. The law reflected the tenor of the times, however, by allowing “separate but equal” accommodations to qualify as a method for receiving funds. It was an unfortunate, but not surprising, outcome during the segregation era. Nonetheless, progress was made. By 1897, 17 predominantly black land-grant colleges and universities had awarded over 700,000 degrees.

Morrill was proud of the results of the two statutes, but he was never a man to rest on his laurels. In 1897, he attempted to procure more funds for the institutions. His bid failed. A year later, he indicated that he was still planning to introduce a measure to increase funding, but he was waiting for an opportune time. Perhaps soldiers returning from the Spanish American War and searching for educational opportunities would convince members of Congress that the time was right for yet another iteration of the law. The opportune time never arrived. Morrill’s death in December 1898 prevented him from pursuing another revision to the law.

He died on December 28, 1898, at the age of 88. Although some revisionist historians debated how much credit he deserved for the land-grant college system—after all, the idea did not originate with Morrill, and many people contributed to the effort—his name was forever linked to the initiative. Delivering the senator’s eulogy, the Reverend E. Bradford Leavitt said, “Here lies a grand old man, one of America’s grand old men, an example of civic virtue and integrity: a pattern for our young men, a vision of the best and noblest citizenship in the onward and upward sweep of this great Republic.”

The land-grant college system succeeded far beyond what Justin Smith Morrill could have envisioned. By the end of the twentieth century, more than 100 American institutions of higher learning were land-grant colleges or universities. They had granted more than 20 million degrees, including one third of all master’s degrees and more than one half of all doctorates awarded in the United States. Land-grant institutions opened the doors of higher education to millions of Americans, especially rural inhabitants and persons of color, that otherwise would not have had access to a college education. Morrill could rightfully claim to have altered the lives of generations of Americans to a greater extent than all but a handful of legislators in the nation’s history.

On a personal note, I am thankful for Morrill’s efforts. I earned two graduate degrees (Master of Public Administration, 1991, and Doctor of Philosophy, 2009) from a college that received land grant college funds, the University of Georgia. He died 64 years to the day before I was born, but nonetheless this man positively affected my life. Thank you, Justin Smith Morrill!


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© 2020 J . Michael Martinez