The Morrill Land Grant Act
The University of Illinois was not built overnight. The Morrill Land Grant Act allowed many states to receive land to build colleges. Without this grant, many states would not have been able to afford the land needed. Therefore, the Morrill Land Grant Act was a gigantic accomplishment for the nation and for Illinois.
Imagine a nation without any public colleges, but rather hundreds of small private colleges intended to only teach men. Furthermore, these colleges educated people primarily to become preachers, teachers, lawyers, and physicians. This was impractical and kept many people from receiving a full education. Most people only went to school to learn to read and write. In addition, some children only went to school if they lived near one or did not have too many chores at home. Many new states in what is now the Midwest had very few schools; hence, some children taught themselves, like Abraham Lincoln did as a child.
On November 18, 1851, an idea that has influenced our nation's educational system was first presented at the Putman County Farmers Convention. At that convention Jonathan Baldwin Turner delivered a speech on developing many public colleges. Turner argued that colleges did not teach practical subjects for a growing nation. A college graduate and a professor at the one Illinois college himself, Turner believed that teaching agriculture and mechanics would better serve America. Turner also believed that the government should help pay for these colleges. After the convention Turner continued to spread this new idea. In addition, he lobbied Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas while they were running for Congress. Both men agreed that the idea was excellent. When Turner and his idea reached the national level, he met a Vermont congressman named Justin Smith Morrill, who also wanted to improve education in the nation. He believed they could change the government's mind on how to run the country's educational system.
Morrill decided to introduce a bill on his and Turner's idea. The bill passed Congress, but President Buchanan vetoed the bill on February 26, 1859. Buchanan said that the colleges would be unsuccessful and that agriculture and mechanics were not college degree fields. Although disappointed, Morrill did not stop. He changed the bill only slightly and presented it to Congress for a second time. Finally, on July 2, 1862, President Lincoln, who had been influenced by Turner while still in Springfield, signed the legislation. It declared that states would receive special land paid for by the federal government to construct a state college. This college was mainly to teach agriculture and mechanics. As the years went by many colleges went on to develop many other fields, which in the long run have helped our country grow and prosper.
Today the effects of the Morrill Act are still present through the sixty-nine colleges it established. Some of the land grant colleges consist of universities in Wisconsin, North and South Dakota, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois. These colleges have grown into some of the highest quality and most prestigious schools in the world. These institutions have developed fields of study in agriculture, veterinary medicine, engineering, home economics, and many public services. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has one of the best engineering schools in the nation and was the last of the great midwestern state universities to be established by the Morrill Act. It was opened in March of 1868 and today has over 32,000 students and 3,000 faculty on the Urbana campus.
Illinois has played a great part in the Morrill Land Grant Act. Education has changed and improved over the years because of the grant. In addition, students today can choose from over a thousand colleges nationwide. The Morrill Land Grant Act is truly a great national accomplishment. —[From John A. Brubachen and Willis Rudy, Higher Education in Transition; Louis G. Geiger, Higher Education in a Maturing Democracy; Ann Lathrop, Illinois People and Culture; John L. Loos and Frank N. Magill, Great Events from History; David R. Wrone, "The Movement Behind the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1850," Illinois History Teacher (1998).]
40 ILLINOIS HISTORY / FEBRUARY 2001