150 years ago: the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act

As we head into the Independence Day holiday, it is fitting that we remember a momentous event 150 years ago this week: on July 2, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862 into law. The Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of land per US Representative for the purposes of establishing colleges. Colleges were established on portions of these grants, financed by the sale of additional acres. The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act and the Morrill Act of 1890 created many of the state universities in the US. Cornell, the Universities of Vermont, California, Illinois, Kentucky, and dozens of others were either created by or greatly enhanced by the Morrill Acts.

Portrait of Senator Justin Morrill

This 150th anniversary is particularly meaningful for Vermont. Native Vermonter Justin Morrill, the sponsor of the bills, served as a US Representative and  US Senator from the 1855 to 1898. Morrill is not only one of the greatest Vermonters, he is also one of the most important figures in US history.

The Morrill Acts changed the fabric of the United States. It is difficult to imagine the US without the universities established and greatly aided by the Morrill Act of 1862. This gift to all of the generations that followed is evident virtually everywhere in our culture. But, beyond this incredible legacy, consider the timing of the bill: by the Summer of 1862, both sides knew very well that they were in for a long, horrific conflict with no clear path to victory. George McClellan’s army was in the midst of the Seven Days Battles, retreating back from the outskirts of Richmond nearly to Washington while fleeing Lee’s advancing army. Just weeks earlier, McClellan blundered his advantage and failed to take Richmond, which would have greatly shortened the war. Now the tide turned radically, and hopes of a quick Union victory were dashed.

It is remarkable, then, that in the midst of the disheartening news from the battlefield this utterly optimistic and hopeful bill would pass. From the deepest darkness came a glimmer of light.

The news in summer 1862 was dominated by the war, and the Morrill Land Grant Act scarcely made a ripple in the pages of Vermont’s newspapers, but it is fascinating to see the context of the moment when the bill passed. The VTDNP digitized several titles that have issues for this period, including the Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro), Burlington Free Press, and the Vermont Watchman and State Journal (Montpelier). More titles from 1862 are forthcoming.

Detail from the July 3, 1862 issue of the Vermont Phoenix

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For a list of Land Grant Universities, click here. To read more about the Land Grant Acts, click here. Read more about Justin Smith Morrill here.

Let’s all remember and celebrate this great American this July fourth.

Tom McMurdo

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