Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under the terms of this law, the federal government granted land to states for the establishment of agricultural and engineering colleges, thereby setting the stage for a revolutionary extension of higher education to the masses.

Summary of Event

Justin Smith Morrill, the author and successful promoter of the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, was a Vermont congressman who was first elected to national office in 1854 as a Whig. With the subsequent demise of that party, Morrill helped to found the Republican Party in Vermont. In the U.S. House of Representatives, he served on both the Committee on Territories and the Committee on Agriculture and became chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 1861. After he was elected to the Senate in 1862, he served there until his death in 1898. Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Congress, U.S.;Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Land policy, U.S.;Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Morrill, Justin Smith Land-grant colleges[Land grant colleges] Colleges, land-grant[Colleges land grant] [kw]Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act (July 2, 1862) [kw]Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act, Lincoln (July 2, 1862) [kw]Morrill Land Grant Act, Lincoln Signs the (July 2, 1862) [kw]Land Grant Act, Lincoln Signs the Morrill (July 2, 1862) [kw]Act, Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant (July 2, 1862) Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Congress, U.S.;Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Land policy, U.S.;Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Morrill, Justin Smith Land-grant colleges[Land grant colleges] Colleges, land-grant[Colleges land grant] [g]United States;July 2, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act[3550] [c]Education;July 2, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act[3550] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 2, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act[3550] [c]Engineering;July 2, 1862: Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act[3550]

Several attempts to use land revenues to aid the promotion of public education had been made before Morrill introduced his bill. For example, the Ordinance of 1785 provided that the sixteenth section in each township was to be set aside for educational purposes. In 1848, when the Oregon Territory was organized, section 36 was added to section 16 in each township for common schools. The Preemption Act of 1841 Preemption Act of 1841 (known also as the Distribution-Preemption Act) turned over to the states, for internal improvements, one-half million acres. Wisconsin Wisconsin;public lands , Alabama, Alabama;public lands Iowa, Iowa;public lands and Oregon Oregon;public lands used the proceeds from the sale of these lands for public schools. Revenues from the Swamp Lands Acts of 1849 and 1850 were applied in many states for the purpose of common education. Beginning as early as the 1840’s, a movement in the northeastern states made progress toward the establishment of agricultural colleges. During the 1850’s, several states petitioned Congress for land to be used for educational purposes.

Morrill was interested in both education and agriculture. He regretted the fact that most existing institutions of higher education taught on the classical plan, giving farmers, mechanics, and others employed at manual labor no opportunities for scientific training and leaving most of them doomed to the haphazard methods of self-education. In 1856, Morrill introduced a resolution that the Committee on Agriculture investigate the possibility of establishing at least one agricultural school that would be patterned after the military academies at West Point and Annapolis. Naval Academy, U.S. Military Academy, U.S.

Morrill’s 1856 resolution was not acted upon, but in 1857, he introduced a bill that would donate public lands to the states for the purpose of creating colleges to train students in agricultural and mechanical arts. The land was to be apportioned to each state at a rate of twenty thousand acres for each senator and representative the state had in Congress, and sixty thousand acres to each territory. Proceeds from sales of this land were to be used in the states as perpetual funds, the interest from which was to be appropriated to the support of colleges. Within a period of five years after the passage of the bill, states accepting the public lands were required to have established colleges. If sufficient land for such grants were not available in any state, that state was to receive an equivalent amount of land scrip that could be used to purchase land elsewhere. This scrip had to be sold to private individuals, who could then choose holdings in the unoccupied areas of any public-land state according to the amount of scrip purchased.

After Morrill’s bill was presented to both houses of Congress, much opposition appeared. The South argued that the proposal was inexpedient and unconstitutional, and many of the western states believed that since the grants were to be made on the basis of population, it differed little from an unsatisfactory distribution scheme that had been proposed earlier by Henry Clay. Many congressmen from states with large land holdings attacked the bill on the grounds that large quantities of land scrip would have to be issued to the older eastern states that had little or no public domain, and the scrip soon would be acquired by land speculators who would claim large tracts of the best lands in the newer states. This land would then be held until the values had increased, and western settlement and improvement thus would be retarded. Despite these objections, Morrill’s bill passed both the House and the Senate by narrow margins.

President James Buchanan Buchanan, James [p]Buchanan, James;and Morrill Land Grant Act[Morrill Land Grant Act] then vetoed the bill. It was, he said, unconstitutional and deprived the government of the needed revenue from land sales. It would make the states too dependent upon the federal government and would set up colleges in competition with existing institutions. Finally, the federal government could not compel the states to use the funds for the specified purpose if the states chose to do otherwise. A vote was quickly taken in the House to override the veto, but it failed to get the necessary two-thirds vote.

Unwilling to accept defeat, Morrill presented a second bill on December 16, 1861, after the secession of most of the southern states had changed the makeup of Congress. His new bill was almost identical to his first bill, except that it increased the number of acres to be given to the states to thirty thousand for each representative and senator. President Abraham Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Morrill Land Grant Act[Morrill Land Grant Act] had previously informed Morrill that he would allow such a bill to become law. The issues were practically the same as before; however, in this instance, the representatives from the older eastern states made a determined effort to force passage of the bill. With the passage of the Homestead Act virtually assured (signed into law in May, that act granted land acreage in 160-acre lots to anyone willing to reside upon it continuously for five years), the easterners feared that their other chances to secure title to western lands were materially reduced. President Lincoln signed the Morrill bill on July 2, 1862.





The language of the Morrill Land Grant Act that Lincoln Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Morrill Land Grant Act[Morrill Land Grant Act] signed into law suggested a populist leaning. It provided for at least one college in each state at which studies of agriculture and the “mechanic arts” (that is, engineering) would be available to support both a liberal and practical education of what were termed the industrial classes, that is, members of the working class. Morrill no doubt was influenced by the rising democratic social climate in the United States; the growing power of workers and middle and lower managers; the importance of agriculture, industry, and commerce; and the growing body of scientific knowledge. His bill also struck a blow at the traditions of college education inherited from England and Germany that directed higher education to the preparation of well-to-do young men for careers as ministers, lawyers, scientists, college faculty, and high-level civil servants.

The concept of the land-grant college made a major contribution to extending the availability of higher education in the United States. The colleges created under the legislation were readily supported by the states. They made possible public college-level learning at low cost and established research as a legitimate activity of higher education. As a result, agricultural and engineering arts and sciences, as professions, were elevated to positions of academic respectability.

Most of the land-grant colleges received not land but scrip, which they used to purchase public land at $1.25 per acre. Under the terms of the act, eleven states received 1,769,440 acres of land. Public-land states later admitted to the Union received similar grants. Twenty-seven states eventually received scrip instead of land, and almost eight million scrip-acres were issued. The older states, which benefited because of their large populations, were authorized to select their acreage anywhere in the West. New York, for example, selected forest lands in Wisconsin Wisconsin;public lands and prairie lands scattered throughout the western Mississippi River Valley to use its 990,000-acre allotment. In all, the states received 140 million acres through the Morrill Land Grant Act and similar measures. None of this land was given to homesteads, and nearly all of it passed through the hands of speculators on its way to final users.

A second Morrill Land Grant Act Morrill Land Grant Act of 1890 was passed in 1890, stipulating that Congress was to make regular appropriations for the further support of land-grant colleges. The 1890 act resulted in the creation of seventeen agricultural and mechanical colleges in the South for African Education;African American Americans. This act also established the practice of federal grants to institutions of higher education. Appropriations were increased in 1907, 1935, 1952, and 1960. By the 1960’s, every state had at least one land-grant institution.


Land-grant institutions have played a special role in developing several fields of study, particularly in agriculture Agriculture;and education[Education] and veterinary medicine Veterinary medicine . By the end of the twentieth century, about 75 percent of the bachelor’s degrees and 98 percent of the advanced degrees in these subjects were being awarded by land-grant colleges. Engineering Engineering;and land-grant colleges[Land grant colleges] is another field that has been well developed in land-grant colleges, with two-fifths of all engineering degrees in the United States coming from these institutions. Almost 51 percent of degrees in home economics are conferred by land-grant schools. A significant and little-known role is the one played by the land-grant college in military education Education;military . Thousands of officers have received their initial military training from these institutions.

Although the initial role of land-grant colleges was to teach the arts of agriculture and engineering, over the years, as additional funds and needs arose, the institutions directed some of their efforts toward research and bringing the results of that research to the users through extension offices. In many instances, the colleges must not only satisfy the needs of their traditional clientele but also serve the interests of the general public. In addition, land-grant colleges increasingly face the challenges of international competition and environmental sensitivity and awareness.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cross, Coy F. Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999. First modern scholarly biography of the American legislator who was responsible for the law that gave rise to the nation’s many land-grant colleges and universities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eddy, Edward D., Jr. Colleges for Our Land and Time: The Land-Grant Ideas in American Education. New York: Harper & Row, 1956. Comprehensive study of the land-grant movement from its beginning to the middle of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">James, Edmund J. “The Origins of the Land-Grant Act of 1862 (the So-Called Morrill Act) and Some Account of Its Author, Jonathan B. Turner.” University Studies 4, no. 1 (November, 1910): 1-111. Attempt to prove that an Illinois professor named Jonathan B. Turner was the true creator of the Morrill Act of 1862.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meyer, James H. Rethinking the Outlooks of Colleges Whose Roots Have Been in Agriculture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Discusses how, since passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, agriculture had been challenged to become internationally competitive and environmentally sensitive, as well as economically sound.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. “The Stalemate in Food and Agriculture Research, Teaching, and Extension.” Science 260 (May 14, 1993): 881, 1007. Discusses how the Land Grant Act provided for colleges to teach agriculture and the “mechanic arts,” but how this role has had to broaden to meet the demands of agribusiness and the interests of the general public.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nevins, Allan. The Origins of the Land-Grant Colleges and State Universities: A Brief Account of the Morrill Act of 1862 and Its Results. Washington, D.C.: Civil War Centennial Commission, 1962. Excellent brief discussion of the subject by a noted historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, William Belmont. The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1924. This full-scale biography of Morrill traces his career from country storekeeper to powerful senator, with special emphasis on the land-grant acts of 1862 and 1890.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rasmussen, Wayne D. Taking the University to the People: Seventy-five Years of Cooperative Extension. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1989. Describes the important function of land-grant institutions in making available the results of agricultural research directly to the user.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of the Interior. Survey of the Land-Grant Colleges and Universities. Directed by Arthur J. Klein, Chief of the Division of Collegiate and Professional Education. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1930. Monumental survey of the achievements of land-grant colleges. An excellent historical introduction discusses the genesis of the idea, the adoption of the legislation, and its implementation.

Westward American Migration Begins

Congress Passes Land Act of 1820

Congress Passes Preemption Act of 1841

Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act

Congress Creates the Freedmen’s Bureau

National Grange Is Formed

Dominion Lands Act Fosters Canadian Settlement

Powell Publishes His Report on the American West

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