President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill into law granting 30,000 acres of Federal land to states for the establishment of agricultural and mechanical schools. “An Act Donating public lands to the several States and (Territories) which may provide colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the Mechanic arts” was sponsored by Republican Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont. Morrill had crafted the laws increasing tariffs in 1861 and served on the sub-committee that came up with the Internal Revenue Act of 1862.
This measure authorized the allocation of 30,000 acres of western land for each congressman and senator in states participating in the program; all states were eligible to take part, including southern states if they returned to the Union. The land would be issued in the form of “land scrip” certificates.
The law’s provisions sparked heated debate because eastern states, which had higher populations and thus more congressmen and senators, would get most of the land. But ultimately enough westerners supported the measure (if only because easterners had supported the Homestead Act) to ensure its passage.
The Morrill Act created the land-grant university system, under which a total of 100 million acres were eventually allocated. The states squandered most of the land; some used it to finance existing schools and universities. Even so, 69 land-grant colleges and universities were chartered across 13 million acres. Among them were Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Clemson, Cornell, and California-Berkeley.
This was the Federal government’s most important education initiative since the nation’s founding. It was based on the words of the Ordinance of 1787: “Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” This made higher education more accessible to more Americans, which helped reshape the social and economic structure of the country.
The law set a precedent in which the Federal government began playing a more active role in education, despite constitutional limitations. This and many other laws enacted by this first-ever Republican-dominated Congress ensured that the Federal government would be closer to the people than ever before. Not all people embraced the prospect of enhanced government oversight that this closer relationship would bring.
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- McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press (Kindle Edition), 1988.
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