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Justin Morrill, the man behind America’s higher education

Justin Smith Morrill, who served 43 years in Congress, was the son of a blacksmith who keenly felt his lack of formal education. Library of Congress

One of the problems in our politics is that we expect to be disappointed. And in that hope, we are rarely disappointed. Approval of Congress is at an all-time low: A year ago, in June 2014, Gallup found that 7 percent of Americans had “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in our elected representatives. That was the lowest number ever recorded, down from 42 percent in 1973, the year polling started on this question. That number is likely to continue to decline.

This cynicism is unhealthy for a country that still depends on Congress for much, and counts on new generations to run for office. Congressional leadership is especially important for New England, which has long wielded a disproportionate influence in national affairs. We love to feel essential to the rest of the country, our sense of history demands it.


But with a population of 14.4 million people, the six New England states add up to a Lilliputian 3.8 percent of the US population. Fortunately, this small region has always been enlarged by politicians of skill and durability. Giants like Ted Kennedy and Tip O’Neill were not only brilliant legislators, they stayed in office for 47 years and 34 years, respectively. In Rhode Island, Claiborne Pell served for 36 years.

But Vermont may be the most effective of the New England states when it comes to finding good senators and sticking with them. Patrick Leahy is the senior senator by a wide margin, having served 40 years, since 1975. Leahy replaced another long-serving senator, George Aitken, who served 34 years, from 1941 to 1975. Count backward a bit further, and we arrive at Justin Smith Morrill, a congressman and a senator who served 43 years, from 1855 to his death in 1898.

Morrill is hardly a household name today, but his legacy is immense, felt in every single state. That’s because of a single bill he proposed, the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862. In the midst of some of the worst fighting of the Civil War, Congress passed a visionary piece of legislation that created more than 100 universities and reshaped the way Americans thought about higher education.


Morrill was an unlikely author of an education bill — his father was a blacksmith, and he never made it to college himself. He was born in the small town of Strafford, where his modest house still stands, with a charming garden and library, hinting at his desire to cultivate himself. He once gave thanks for having been born an American, “and in New England rather than in any other part, and in Vermont rather than in any other State in New England.”

At the age of 8, he caught a glimpse of a president, James Monroe, traveling through the countryside. Decades later, on a visit to Washington, he went for a walk in a pasture near the White House, where he met an old farmer and asked about his cows — an important form of conversation in Vermont. He turned out to be another president, Zachary Taylor. By the end of Morrill’s life, presidents would be coming to him.

As a young man without means, Morrill made his way from one job to the next — first a clerk, then a shopkeeper, then an investor in the businesses of others. By the time he was 38, he had made enough money to retire, when a second career opened. In 1854, he was elected to Congress and, like many of his fellow Whigs, joined a new organization, the Republican Party.


A meticulous bookkeeper, Morrill took a deep interest in fiscal matters, and his well-reasoned arguments showed Republicans to be pragmatic — at a time when many Southern Democrats accused them of wanting to break up the Union. A tariff that he wrote was especially welcome to Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state, and helped Abraham Lincoln to carry it when he ran for president in 1860.

When most of the South seceded, in response to Lincoln’s election, it was the worst disaster in the history of the federal government. Yet, the absence of Southern Democrats also created an unusual legislative opportunity. With hardly any opposition, a Republican Congress could pass bills of sweep and grandeur. This was the stage on which Morrill found stardom.

The congressman’s lasting legacy was in education. The armies of the Union were not fighting merely to put down a rebellion; they believed in a vision of America’s future. Feeling the want of his own schooling, Morrill sought to open the doors of opportunity as wide as possible. He wanted college to available to all — especially to “the sons of toil,” as he called those who worked to make ends meet.

Over the course of just a few days in July 1862, Lincoln signed a remarkable set of bills into law, including the Homestead Act, the Transcontinental Railroad Act, and Morrill’s Land-Grant College Act. The first two gave away approximately 200 million acres of government land to settlers and to the railroads needed to get them there. Morrill’s act would eventually offer another 17.4 million acres to the states, on the condition that they create public universities with particular expertise in agriculture, technology, and military training. Money was to be apportioned to each state, according to the size of its Congressional delegation.


Ideas about federal support for education had been floating around Washington since Jefferson, but this was the boldest act ever undertaken by far, dazzling in its scope and imagination.

Morrill was troubled by the wasteful ways in which Americans depleted the soil. In his way, he was an early environmentalist, advocating for better agricultural instruction, so the land could yield more and renew itself. He had noted that New England farms were already in decline.

He was also interested in ways to educate other practical men like himself, and so he added language that encouraged scientific and technical instruction.

The result was nothing less than the creation of a new educational order for the United States. Older institutions did not lose their preeminence, of course. But new kinds of universities came into existence, with a broad reach and a public purpose.

Both the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were born of the Morrill Act, a fact of no small relevance to the state’s future economic development.


All six New England states would eventually use the land grants to set up the public universities that are still important to this day. In other sections of the country, some of our most successful state institutions were created, including the University of California, the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University (no longer public), and a huge number of others. Land-grant schools have graduated more than 11 presidents — and tens of millions of Americans.

Inevitably, with a program this ambitious, there were setbacks as well. Some states cashed in their grants too quickly and made very little money off of them. Others were slower setting up their universities. In the South, a “separate but equal” philosophy was permitted, that allowed segregated institutions to exist until the Civil Rights movement.

At the same time, however, the fact that the South was included eased its reintegration into the country after the Civil War. Many of the most eminent African-American colleges, including Hampton and Tuskegee, also owe their origins to Morrill’s bill. Native American schools would also be added.

In other ways, the Land-Grant Act became better over time. Many of the land-grant schools were early advocates of co-education and advanced the cause of educating women. Morrill added new legislation to fine-tune the program and secure additional funding. Appropriately, Morrill Halls can be found on campuses around the country.

But they are not his only monuments. It is touching to reflect that the Library of Congress, our most magnificent shrine to the book, owes its current location to Morrill, who so keenly felt his own lack of education.

As chairman of the Senate’s finance committee, he wielded strong influence in the development of Washington, and much of its modern look is due to him. He oversaw the completion of the Washington Monument, he conceived of Statuary Hall inside the Capitol, he approved the site of the Supreme Court, and he refused a plan that would have allowed train tracks to crisscross what is now the National Mall.

In short, Morrill’s is a legacy that is simply too large to calculate and expands every spring as millions of future Americans graduate from public universities.

That network did not create a nation of miniature versions of New England. Instead, it allowed each state to develop its own identity more deeply. What could be a more fitting tribute to a life that was one long exercise in self-education?

Ted Widmer is assistant to the president for special projects at Brown University and a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation. He is an Ideas columnist.


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