The late U.S. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont served the State of Vermont for forty-five years in the U.S. Congress beginning in 1854. This year he is being remembered for his leadership in the passage of
the historic Land Grant Act in 1862. The material below was developed for a Farmers’ night presentation at the Vermont legislature on February 8th , 2012 in Montpelier. The presentation is being jointly sponsored by the Historic Morrill Homestead, the Vermont Historical Society, and the University of Vermont.
Background on Justin Morrill
My name is Justin Morrill. I represented my beloved State of Vermont in the U.S. Congress for forty-five years, from 1854 until my passing in 1899, twelve in the U.S. House and the remainder in the U.S. Senate. I am being honored on the 150th year since the passage of the Federal Land Grant Act that was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862 and was named after me.
Before I talk about the Act, and the significant work that went into getting it passed, I think you should know something about me and about the times that existed during my service representing our State.
I was born in Strafford, Vermont, a hill town down near the Connecticut River, in 1810, one of ten children. My father and grandfather were local blacksmiths. When I was born, Washington had been dead for ten years and it was the beginning of a new Nation. While I wanted to go to College, my parents could not afford this education. I went to our local school to the age of 14, and a little time at Thetford Academy. I had a quest for knowledge and did spend much of my time collecting and reading books even though I was unable to go on for a more formal education.
I was fortunate to find a position working as a clerk in the local store in Strafford, the center of commerce in our small community. Eventually I was made a partner in the store, and earned enough money to be able to retire after fifteen years to my local farm near the center of Town. I was thirty-eight years old at the time of this retirement. I must say, I was excited about this new venture due to my interest in farming, horticulture, and architecture.
HIS INTEREST IN ARCHITECTURE AND HORTICULTURE
I had a deep interest in both architecture and horticulture. I collected and read a number of books on these subjects over the years, and was able to prepare plans for my home and for the land around my new house in Strafford. For horticulture, I was interested in doing a lot of adaptability trials for a variety of tree and shrubs, some from Europe and others from the Orient. There were not many research facilities at that time and I felt that my land could serve that purpose.
I also prepared plans for my new home and I supervised its construction. It was a 17-room house in Gothic Revival Style that was popular during the 1840’s and 1850’s. If you have not visited my homestead, I hope you might find the time to do so!
Many of the books that I collected on a variety of subjects eventually became part of the Town Library. It is a very extensive collection on various subjects.
MY ELECTION TO CONGRESS
I did not intend to go into public service. I had not held any position besides being a local Justice of the Peace. Anyhow, I was elected at the age of forty-six as a Whig. I promised to oppose slavery, a key part of the Constitution of our State of Vermont. In 1854 a Vermont Senate Report echoed Vermont’s constitution and questioned the Government forcing one people over another. It is interesting that the State of Georgia Assembly passed a resolution after that suggesting that Vermont be towed out to sea. It was a very interesting time in our Country. In 1854, the year I was elected to Congress, the Missouri Compromise was repealed. Up until that time, there was a balance between the number of slave states and non slave states admitted to the Union. After this I changed my allegiance to the newly formed Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, and helped to establish it in the State of Vermont. I entered Congress at a time of great stress and uncertainty in our country, the conflict between slavery and freedom.
EDUCATION FOR THE COMMON FOLKS
Certainly from my own background and experience, I knew well the importance of education for people in our country. There had been a lot of discussion on the subject over time, before I was elected. Captain Alden Partridge, the founder of Norwich University and a former Commandant of West Point, had proposed a national system of higher education covering courses in farming, engineering, and business financed by the sale of Public Lands. I had become a trustee of the institution in 1848. Also, Illinois College Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner proposed providing liberal education to farmers, factory workers and others in 1850 through public lands appropriation. The Illinois legislature sent the idea to Congress in 1853.
The need for such a system was real. A College education in 1850 was primarily reserved for white men with money, and most studied theology, medicine, and law. Also at this time, 80% of Americans lived in rural areas, and 60% of these were farmers.
THE LAND GRANT ACT
When I first entered Congress, I proposed to the Committee of Agriculture that they establish one or more schools of agriculture based upon the Military Academy concept., this had also been a concept championed by others. While this idea had not gone anywhere, I again relied upon others like Turner of Illinois, Ezra Cornell, a New York farmer, and newspaper publisher Horace Greeley and others to help to support a land grant for the establishment of colleges for a practical education in the sciences and arts for the common people. It was a five-year struggle. The first Land Grant Bill passed the House and Senate by very slim margins, and was vetoed by President Buchanan who said the country was too poor and the law was unconstitutional. I re-introduced it in 1861 in the new Congress. It was at a time of great strife in the Country as the Southern States had formed the Confederacy, and they had armies in the field. I saw the Land Grant Act as a law that could help repair the ravages of the war and thus safeguard our Country’s future. It passed both houses of Congress by wide margins and was signed into law by President Lincoln in 1862.
I want you to know that two months before signing this Act, President Lincoln approved the Homestead Act opening up public lands to western settlers, resulting in the appropriation of 70 million acres, and one day before he signed the transcendental railroad bill, giving them 130 million acres. It was not too much to ask then for 17 million acres of land to go to the States (based on 30,000 to each member of Congress from each state), the proceeds to establish Land Grant Colleges in each State. Those States that did not have public land received scripts that they could assign.
THE LAND GRANT IN VERMONT
I am pleased that Vermont was one of the first three States to accept the land grant. The Vermont legislature in 1863 passed a law providing a provision for one Land Grant Institution, by joining the University of Vermont with Middlebury and Norwich. Several others and I strongly supported this joint structure. It did not happen, as the trustees of the various institutions did not embrace the concept. When it did not happen, I offered a 5,000 dollar challenge grant if it was built in my town of Strafford. That did not happen either, but the then private University of Vermont offered to become the Land Grant institution in our State.
It is important to recognize that the Land Grant concept was not established for the soul purpose of teaching agriculture. The intent of the Act was to give an opportunity for those engaged in industrial pursuits some knowledge of the practical sciences related to agriculture and the mechanical arts. It was not intended to be a technical college or technical institute.
I know that in 1890 the Vermont Grange opposed UVM continuing as the Land Grant and I was called upon to testify in support of the University. I am pleased that with the further passage of the Hatch Act that created the Agricultural Experiment Stations in 1887, and 1914 Act creating the Extension Service, that the connection to rural Vermont and the farming community was further enhanced.
WHAT I SAW IN MY FORTY-FIVE YEARS IN CONGRESS
Many have honored me, and I am humbled. There are many things I am proud of, and these include not only the Land Grant Act, but also the Tariff Act of 1861 that helped to finance the period of the Civil War and paying off the debt after. I am also proud of the reconstruction of the Capital. During my time I was able to push for the beautification of the Capital and the Capital grounds. I am proud of the completion of the Washington Monument, the erection of the Library of Congress building, the reconstruction of the Capital, the establishment of Statuary Hall in the Capital, the fresco painting in the Capital by the great artist Constantino Brumdi. My last speech in the Senate called for the creation of a separate building for the Supreme Court. Every great nation, I believe, should have enduring architecture, and that is why I pushed for the beautification of Washington as an enduring place for our Country. Yes, I was also involved in the passage of many laws, such as the anti-bigamy act that was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court, but the education of the common people, like myself, I consider my greatest accomplishment.
Since the passage of the Land Grant Act, 150 years ago, you have seen much success. Today there are 105 Land Grant Institutions, and 20 million degrees have been granted since 1862. 3 million students attend a Land Grant Institution annually. Land Grants have helped to transform American in both the arts and sciences.
Yes, I had seen a lot of changes during my forty-five years in Congress. The United States had grown from 14 States to 45, from 4 million people to 75 million. With the railroad, it was possible to go from New York to San Francisco in six days. I saw the reconstruction of a shattered Union.
Throughout all of these events, serving the people of my beloved State of Vermont in Washington for forty-five years was my greatest honor.