150 Years of the Morrill Land-Grant Acts

Encountering buildings named “Morrill Hall” was a regular feature of my childhood as my family moved to several big university towns in the 1960’s and 70’s. Then, as now, mystified by English spelling, I assumed there was some special rule for spelling “moral” or perhaps “morale” when it was written in stone. Not so, these buildings are in honor of Justin Smith Morrill, the Vermont senator who proposed the legislation that created the Land-grant colleges in 1862.

The 150th anniversary party for the Morrill Act is on in DC this week. And it’s definitely worth celebrating: the land-grants are still around and mostly thriving, and whatever the qualms about higher ed in American may be part of the reason we have this sector at all is the Morrill Act and later commitments from the federal government and the states. Some highlights of the celebration: The Smithsonian’s Annual Folk Life Festival has a “Campus and Community” thread that looks at land-grants’ efforts beyond the classroom and lab (extension and community learning were early parts of the land-grant vision). Current presidents of the many of the Land-grants will be in town for meetings and events. They will be at the Lincoln Memorial Monday (84 degrees, by DC standards a crisp spring day, but not so much if you are in your full academic regalia).

There are also going to be Justin Morrill impersonators on hand (kind of like the Lincoln-seque guy who roams around Ford’s Theater when you go for a play or a tour) as well as the Morrill descendants.

So here’s some of the text from the original act, courtesy of “Our Documents.gov” (a site which gives you the text, as well as large and small images of the original document.)

The Morrill Act (1862)

Original Morrill Land-grant act from 1862
Chap. CXXX.–AN ACT Donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there be granted to the several States, for the purposes hereinafter mentioned, an amount of public land, to be apportioned to each State a quantity equal to thirty thousand acres for each senator and representative in Congress to which the States are respectively entitled by the apportionment under the census of eighteen hundred and sixty: Provided, That no mineral lands shall be selected or purchased under the provisions of this Act.


[Monies …] and the interest of which shall be inviolably appropriated, by each State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, 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.

You can follow the convocation on Twitter: #Morrill150

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