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Morrill Act of 1862

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

From the 1800 – 1860 the federal government, through 162 violence-backed cessions, expropriated approximately 10.7 million acres of land from 245 tribal nations and divided it into roughly 80,000 parcels for redistribution. Proceeds from the land sale and redistribution was used to funded the Morrill Act of 1862.

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 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.

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. 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.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 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 were born of the Morrill Act.

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.

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