The Morrill Act: Higher Education for All

July 6, 2012

We’re a few days past the sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act, the landmark federal education act that established land grant universities in many states.  It was a dramatic and extraordinarily successful step towards providing much wider access for higher education.

There’s a lovely piece on it in the Civil War Book of Days, a terrific series from the Vermont Humanities Council that chronicles the Civil War week by week.  (It is available by e-mail subscription.)

The Morrill Act was passed during the Civil War, and signed into law by the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln.  An earlier version had been passed by the Congress (narrowly) but vetoed by President Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor.  The opposition came from Southern Democrats.  Senator Clement Clay of Alabama,  “denounced the bill as ‘. . . one of the most monstrous, iniquitous and dangerous measures which have ever been submitted to Congress.’ Clay went on to say, ‘. . . if the people demand the patronage of the federal government for agriculture and education, it is because they have been debauched and led astray . . ..‘  (citing Congress, Senate, Agricultural Colleges, 35th Congress, 2nd session, Congressional Globe  (7 February 1859): 851.)

That was in 1859.  Once Lincoln was elected and the southermn states had seceded, Congress could repass the law and Lincoln sign it — ion 1862.  Clay’s opposition sounds oddly contemporary.  He is arguing for a very narrow scope of federal policy, and warning of incursions on liberty if the policy is enacted.  But instead, the Morrill Act opened opportunity (and thereby liberty) for millions of Americans.

In this week of celebrations of liberty, fireworks and all, let us celebrate the Morrill Act, and once again re-commit ourselves to the dream of higher education for all.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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