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What is the Morrill Act?

By S. Ashraf
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Land-Grant College Act of 1862, also known as the Morrill Act, was legislation enacted by the United States Congress to assist states in financing colleges that would specialize in “agriculture and the mechanic arts,” meaning agriculture, engineering and military science. It did this, initially, by making grants of land to states. The states, in turn, were directed to sell the land and use the funds generated to establish the new colleges. This act is named for Justin Morrill, a Vermont Congressman, who authored it.

Under the Morrill Act, each state was granted 30,000 acres (12,140 hectares) of federal land for each congressional seat it had as determined by the census of 1860. The U.S. Constitution guarantees each state a minimum of two senators and one representative, so no state received less than 90,000 acres (36,420 hectares). Some of the states used the land-grant funds to set up new colleges, but others gave the money to existing colleges to establish schools of agriculture and mechanics. These schools became known as “A&M” colleges.

The Morrill Act was first introduced into Congress in 1857 in response to a political movement, spanning 15 years, which called for the establishment of agricultural colleges. Colleges of the early 19th century traditionally taught classical studies, and the general sciences rather than practical or applied fields of interest. The Morrill Act was passed by Congress in 1859, but President James Buchanan vetoed it.

Morrill amended the act to include the teaching of military tactics in addition to agriculture and engineering, and he resubmitted it to Congress in 1861. The act was passed and signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. At the time of its passage, the act excluded Confederate because of their secession from the U.S. The Morrill Act was extended to include those states after the end of the American Civil War.

In 1890, Congress passed a second Morrill Act that was directed at former Confederate states. It required states to show that race was not a criterion for admission or to establish separate land-grant colleges for blacks. In lieu of land, this Morrill Act granted money to the states so they could establish new colleges.

The Morrill Acts, by forcing the inclusion of applied and technical fields of study such as agriculture and engineering in colleges, fueled industrialization and significantly affected U.S. education and society. In total, 69 land-grant colleges were founded. Some examples of land-grant schools are Michigan State University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the University of California.

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Discussion Comments

By lovealot — On Sep 16, 2011

It is an interesting fact that the Morrill Act didn't pass when it was just intended to provide land and then money to establish colleges that taught agriculture and engineering only. Maybe people just didn't see the need for students to go to college to learn about farming.

But then when it began to look like a war was really brewing in the U.S., and the bill was changed to include military training, it passed.

It's a good thing that the two other parts, agriculture and engineering, were kept as part of the bill.

In all fairness, I guess it was too bad that the south wasn't included in the grants to build schools. All during the war, they were at such a big disadvantage.

I'm glad that the government was able to give these grants to the former Confederate States after the Civil War ended. It gave them a real boost.

By Misscoco — On Sep 15, 2011

Just like politics today, in the mid 1800s it took years and lots of debate before the Morrill Act of 1862 became law. I'm not surprised that Lincoln was in favor of the Morrill Act.

The creator of the bill, Justin Morrill, was being far-sighted in seeing the need for establishing agriculture, engineering and military colleges.

The idea to give states land to sell and to use the money to establish colleges that taught more than just the classics and related material, was fair and had far-reaching effects later on.

This idea paved the way for the development of the great college and university system we have today.

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