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Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862

Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862

Daniel W. Hamilton

During the Civil War, the Thirty-Seventh Congress was responsible for a striking amount of landmark legislation. The Homestead Act, the Enrollment Act, and the Internal Revenue Act were passed in a matter of months. Equally important, this energetic Congress also passed the Morrill Land Grant Act (MLGA). The MLGA transformed higher education and was responsible for the establishment of numerous colleges across the country. In this legislation, championed in the Congress by Justin Smith Morrill, the federal government took, for the first time, a leadership role in higher education in the United States.

Morrill, a representative from Vermont, was the most important proponent providing federal assistance for state colleges in Congress before the Civil War. Morrill, the son of a blacksmith, was unable to attend college because his father could not afford the tuition for all of his sons. Leaving school at fifteen, Morrill became a prosperous owner of a general store. He became active in public life and was elected in 1855 as a Whig to the House of Representatives before becoming a leader of the new Republican Party in Vermont. In Congress he rose to a position on the powerful Ways and Means Committee and became one of the most outspoken advocates for the democratic ideal that a college education should be available, at low cost, to all who desired one.

Morrill's thinking was heavily influenced by Jonathan Turner of Illinois College, who had long argued for the establishment of state agricultural colleges through the use of federal land grants. Morrill proposed plans for land grant colleges as early as 1857, and a plan of his passed the House in 1858. The bill faced opposition in the Senate from Southerners objecting to the increased federal role in dictating the course of higher education within the states. Morrill's bill eventually passed the Senate in 1859 in the midst of an economic downturn. President James Buchanan, however, vetoed the bill for both constitutional and economic reasons.

With a new president and the departure of the Southern congressional delegations, Morrill was able in the first Civil War Congress to finally steer his bill to passage. Under the terms of MLGA, the federal government distributed land proportionately to the states, which then sold it. The proceeds of the land sales supported colleges in the instruction of "agriculture and the mechanical arts." Some states used the money from the sale of land to aid existing schools, and other states used the money to establish new colleges and universities. Each state was given 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative it had in the Congress. Most of the land given to the states was in the West, where the vast bulk of unsold federal land remained. Additionally, the most populous eastern states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, received a larger share of western land than the western states themselves. This provoked some opposition from western delegations in the Congress, but the simultaneous passage of the Homestead Act secured the support of enough western Republicans to pass the act on July 2, 1862. Although first applied in the Union states, after the Civil War, the MLGA was extended to the former Confederate states.

The passage of this legislation in the midst of war is emblematic of the dynamism and creativity of this Congress, even on nonmilitary matters. President Lincoln, consumed with the day-to-day fighting of the war, gave Congress a remarkably free hand in social and economic legislation. The Morrill Land Grant Act remains one of the great legislative achievements of the Civil War Congress, and countless Americans went to college as a direct result of this law. Through this legislation the state universities of Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Minnesota, and Ohio, as well as dozens of other state institutions were created or expanded. State universities from Maryland to Nebraska to Washington have a Morrill Hall on campus. Morrill was elected to the Senate in 1866, where he remained until he died in office in 1898.


Donald, David H., et al. The Civil War and Reconstruction. New York: Norton, 2001.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Ballentine Books, reissue ed., 1989.

Nevins, Allan. The State Universities and Democracy Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962.

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