Refining a Republic: The Morrill Land Grant College Act

July 6, 1862/2012
Volume 3, Issue 27 (91 Issues Since 15 October 2010)

Refining a Republic: The Morrill Land Grant College Act

July 2, 1862. In December of 1857, Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill first introduced his controversial bill “Donating public lands to the several States and Territories which may provide colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the mechanic arts.” Later named after its principal sponsor

Justin Smith Morrill, Library of Congress

Justin Smith Morrill, Library of Congress

and champion, The Morrill Land Grant College Act would set up a network of public colleges and universities to be built and endowed in each state from the sale of federal lands. These land grant schools would be established to promote scientific instruction and, to encourage, in Morrill’s words, the “rejuvenation of worn-out lands.” For the first time higher education would be accessible to people of modest means. (1)

The legislation was ferociously assailed by southern Democrats in Congress led by Senator Clement Clay of Alabama, who denounced the bill as “. . . one of the most monstrous, iniquitous and dangerous measures which have ever been submitted to Congress.” Clay went on to say, “. . . if the people demand the patronage of the federal government for agriculture and education, it is because they have been debauched and led astray . . .” (2)

“Would it not be in the power of a majority in Congress,” asked Virginia’s Senator James Mason, “to fasten upon the southern States that peculiar system of free schools in the New England States which I believe would tend . . . to destroy that peculiar character which I am happy to believe belongs to the great mass of the southern people.” (3)

In the House of Representatives, Alabama Congressman Williamson Cobb warned that a dangerous precedent was being set and predicted that the national government would soon be “feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked and one day building . . . schools and supporting those schools.” Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi argued that the government could be “. . . warped so far from the path it had previously followed.” (4)

Overcoming this resistance, on February 7, 1859 the Senate narrowly approved the measure by a vote of 25 to 22. But this success was short lived. On February 24, following a private audience with Louisiana Senator John Slidell, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill, declaring that “The establishment of these colleges has prevailed over the pressing wants of the common Treasury.” (5)

However, in mid-1862 Clement Clay was sitting in the Confederate Congress in Richmond. James Mason and John Slidell were Confederate government emissaries in Europe. Jefferson Davis was the President of the Confederate States, and James Buchanan was sitting out the war on his country estate in Pennsylvania. With southern Democrats gone from the halls of Congress and Abraham Lincoln in the White House, Congress passed a raft of legislation, which Lincoln promptly signed, legislation that promoted free labor, agrarian improvement, and the building of civic infrastructure. In quick succession Lincoln signed legislation that established a Department of Agriculture (May 15); The Homestead Act (May 20); the first Pacific Railroad Act (July 1); and the resurrected College Land Act (July 2). In 1864, when Congress added conservation to this reform agenda with the preservation of Yosemite Valley, Frederick Law Olmsted would characterize these forward-thinking actions, undertaken during the “darkest hours” of the Civil War, as “the refinement of a republic.” (6)

– Submitted by Rolf Diamant


(1.) Wade, Kathryn Lindsay Anderson, “The Intent And Fulfillment of The Morrill Act Of 1862: Review Of The History of Auburn University And The University of Georgia,” Auburn University, 2005

(2.) Congress, Senate, Agricultural Colleges, 35th Congress, 2nd session, Congressional Globe  (7 February 1859): 851.

(3.) Congress, Senate, Agricultural Colleges, 35th Congress, 2nd session, Congressional Globe  (7 February 1859): 718.

(4.) Congress, Senate, Agricultural Colleges, 35th Congress, 2nd session, Congressional Globe  (7 February 1859): 857.

(5.) The American Presidency Project

(6.) Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865 by Frederick Law Olmsted


Morrill Act, Library of Congress, Primary Documents in American History

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Filed under Civil War Book of Days: 1862

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