Land for Learning

Even 150 years later, the triumph of the ‘Land-Grant Bill’ is something to celebrate. By Charles Reineke.

Land for Learning: Even 150 years later, the triumph of the ‘Land-Grant Bill’ is something to celebrate. By Charles Reineke.

By the spring of 1862, even the most ardent supporters of Missouri’s 21-year-long experiment in state-supported higher education were despairing of the future. The state’s first public university, its great “seminary of learning” in the words of founding president James Lathrop, had become a muddy military garrison. Academic Hall, a neoclassical temple of enlightenment, now housed the unwashed men and mounts of Lewis Merrill’s Horse, a rough-and-ready U.S. Cavalry regiment intent on enforcing a bloody brand of martial law.

Thirty-six students were enrolled when the campus occupation began. Those charged with instructing them — faculty who had consented to take a Union loyalty oath — hadn’t been paid in months. In small towns and on farmlands around Columbia, meanwhile, murderous guerrilla raids and brutal military reprisals were occuring with alarming frequency. As the violence mounted, so did the level of anger, fear and mistrust. Bowing to the inevitable, the Board of Curators closed the University on March 19, 1862.

Lathrop, at least in his public pronouncements, was confident the closure would be temporary. Others, including many members of the Missouri General Assembly, hoped otherwise. To Unionist Missourians, locating the University in the heart of slave holding, secessionist Little Dixie had always been a bad idea.

section divider

Though few could have imagined it during these dark days, the instrument of MU’s salvation was even then being forged in the Union capital.

In December of 1857, Justin Smith Morrill, a second-term congressman from Vermont, introduced what he termed the College Land-Grant Bill. An autodidact whose formal studies were limited to “six weeks in a schoolhouse,” Morrill’s legislation called for using federally-owned lands to fund an entirely new type of college, one that would allow the nation’s working men to engage in a more practical, real-world form of advanced education.

“Lands for learning” was a well-established concept in the nation’s history. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 established the principle of government support of public education: states carved from those Northwest territories set aside two, six-square-mile township plots, the sales of which would bankroll a public college or university.

But Morrill’s bill was intended to do more than provide another means of pumping federal money into education. Its goal was nothing short of transforming the very nature of higher learning.

Antebellum colleges and universities would scarcely be recognizable to today’s students. With few exceptions, their enrollments were restricted to a tiny, privileged group of young white men. Professors lectured or held tutoring sessions heavy in Greek and Latin classics, mathematics, physical sciences, and philosophy. Some programs, like those at MU, included English rhetorical delivery, political economy and Christian evidences, a popular 19th century field devoted to exploring various justifications of faith. Discipline was strict and student life highly regimented. Extra-curricular activities, occasional pranks and brawls aside, were restricted largely to attendance in chapel and literary debating societies.

Portrait of Morrill, Lathrop, Rollins, Cobb and Dix

Dramatic Personæ

At both the national and state levels, the debate over the future of American higher education included some of the 19th century’s most fascinating characters.

Effective in training clergy, scholars and statesmen, public higher education had little to offer the artisans and entrepreneurs whose ambition and inventiveness were rapidly transforming the United States into an industrial power. For Morrill, the need for change was obvious.

He was not alone in this view. Calls for “industrial universities” were growing— particularly in Western states where social and political identities were forged in the aggressively egalitarian ethos of Jacksonian democracy. Among the most tireless and persuasive boosters of higher education reform was Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a professor at the tiny but influential Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill.

“As things are now,” Turner wrote in his 1851 pamphlet, Plan for an Industrial University for the State of Illinois, “our best farmers and mechanics, by their own native force of mind, by the slow process of individual experience, come to know, at forty, what they might have been taught in six months at twenty; while a still greater number of the less fortunate or less gifted, stumble on through life, almost as ignorant of every true principle of their art as when they begun.”

Turner argued that because a prosperous nation depended upon an educated “industrial class,” federal support for advanced instruction in agriculture, commerce and the mechanical arts would benefit every American. His remarkably modern-sounding plan called for establishing low-cost colleges and universities open to the children of farmers and working people, institutions that would include practical and vocational instruction as part of their core curricula. These seats of higher learning should be paid for, he said, by leveraging the value of the federal government’s immense land holdings.

Turner’s ideas were widely published, even attracting the favorable attention of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the largest paper in the nation. Some have argued that, given the similarities between Turner’s vision and Morrill’s College Land-Grant Bill, Turner must surely have influenced Morrill’s legislation. If that’s the case, Morrill never acknowledged it.

section divider

Morrill’s bill, whatever its birthright, faced long odds. Prosaically dubbed House Bill No. 2, it began life in the Committee on Public Lands, where chairman Williamson R. W. Cobb of Alabama was determined to kill it. Cobb argued that the bill was too expensive, exceeded the federal government’s Constitutional authority, and would set off a frenzy of land speculation that would hurt small farmers and homesteaders.

Despite Cobb’s opposition, Morrill and his allies used parliamentary maneuvering to guide the bill from the committee to floor debate. There it was introduced under the cloud of being “reported adversely,” meaning the majority of the Committee on Public Lands were against the legislation but would nevertheless allow the full House to decide the matter.

On Tuesday, April 20, 1858, Morrill rose to defend his bill. His speech lasted well over an hour, lengthy even by the standards of the day. He began by stressing that his bill would actually save revenue. The lack of “education of the proprietors of the soil,” Morrill said, was costing the United States millions in potential income, chiefly due to land spoilage.

The paucity of education in the mechanical arts, he continued, was also degrading the nation’s rich patrimony. America’s mechanical know-how was the envy of the world, Morrill said, but its true potential would never be realized without formal training. “Our country relies upon [engineers and mechanics] as its right arm to do the handiwork of the nation. Let us then, furnish the means for that man to acquire culture, skill and efficiency.”

Morrill went on to assert that Congress — including many of the members now opposing his bill on Constitutional grounds — had recently cited the so-called “commerce clause” to approve federal land grants supporting construction of rail lines. Morrill agreed this was a wise course. "And was not support for the training of farmers and industrial workers equally crucial to the national prosperity?" he asked.

The plan, he said, was simple. Each state would be allotted 20,000 acres (increased to 30,000 acres in the final legislation) for every member of its Congressional delegation. Those states lacking sufficient federal land holdings would be issued comparable value in “government script” to be redeemed at the current market rate ($1.25 per acre). The income from land sales and script would then go to “the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”

Finally, Morrill said, the idea that the proposed land grants would set off a speculative frenzy was hogwash: In fact, the grants would make barely a dent in the hundreds of millions of unoccupied acres owned by the federal government. No homesteader would be denied the opportunity to pursue a life on the soil, said Morrill. Besides, he concluded, “What man is there in the whole length and breadth of the country who would not prefer, if he could have his choice, such an education as might be obtained at one of these colleges to a warrant for 160 acres of land?”

Two days later, Cobb rose to oppose the measure. A huge man — Morrill described him as “six and a half feet tall, large boned and heavy voiced” — Cobb skillfully employed a slow-paced, “aw-shucks” brand of Southern oratory, a variant of the homespun approach used so effectively by his political enemy Abraham Lincoln.

Morrill loathed Cobb’s style and was dismissive of the man. “He was intellectually, if not a weak brother, by no means equal to his physical bulk, with the humor of a buffoon at times and the manner of a tin-peddler,” Morrill wrote.

But Cobb’s argument was far from simple-minded. Instead, it touched on an issue that was pushing the nation toward war, a fundamental question that arouses passions even today: To what extent may the federal government intervene in the affairs of the states?

After briefly describing his amazement at the “strange course” taken by the bill, Cobb read into the record his “adverse report” from the committee. That report, among its other complaints, warned that Morrill’s bill grossly exceeded the authority of the federal government and would open up a veritable Pandora’s box of requests for aid.

“If this policy is embarked in, what shall be its limits? Shall the merit of the object, and the ability of the Government, be the boundaries of its action?,” Cobb asked. “If either lands or money could be granted for the purpose, designated in this bill, could they not, and ought they not, to be granted to the building of churches, erecting school-houses, and the keeping up of the common schools in the States and Territories? If to one meritorious object, why not another? Or shall the action of Congress in this regard be extended to every useful public and private purpose within the States?”

When opponents questioned why, if Cobb felt so strongly in this regard, he had previously voted to allow federal land grants to fund insane asylums in New York, Cobb blamed the attractions of one “Miss Dix” and the chivalrous nature of his Alabama constituents. “[Dorothea Dix] went down into my State, and her extraordinary charms had such an effect upon the people, that I gave way to my better feelings and voted for the bill.” Morrill was almost certainly rolling his eyes.

MU hall and gazebo

Post-Morrill MU

The Morrill Act put MU on sound financial footing for the first time in its history.

As the afternoon wore on, tired legislators tried several times to delay or table the bill. Eventually, however, the skilled maneuverings of Morrill’s chief ally, Israel Washburn Jr. of Maine, managed to bring it up for a vote. It passed, 105 to 100.

In May, Morrill’s bill came up before the Senate. There it faced similar opposition, again divided along partisan lines. Yet after numerous procedural delays the result was the same: It passed.

Unfortunately for Morrill and his supporters, the specter of civil war meant President James Buchanan was loath to support anything that even hinted at sectional discord. He was also worried about money. The financial panic of 1857 had rendered the Treasury particularly starved for revenue. So, perhaps not surprisingly, Buchanan vetoed the College Land-Grant Bill.

Morrill was disappointed but not discouraged. Public support for his bill was growing, and he knew a change in administration would likely result in a more supportive chief executive. Lincoln’s 1860 election provided that executive, and the ensuing war purged Congress of states’ rights-supporting members — among them Cobb.

Years later, Morrill recalled the final days of his old nemesis. “I cannot forget that when his state seceded, in January 1861, he did not leave the House with his colleagues, but lingered until he got the official copy of the ordinance of secession, and then went reluctantly and tearfully away, saying, ‘God save the country!’”

In early 1862, Morrill asked his friend Ben Wade of Ohio to reintroduce the land-grant bill in the Senate. Parliamentary wrangling delayed its consideration, but no serious opposition emerged. On June 10th, even as the Union was still reeling from accounts of the terrible bloodshed at the Battle of Shiloh, the Senate passed Morrill’s bill. The House followed on June 17th. President Lincoln signed it without comment on July 2, 1862.

section divider

No one would have been happier with this result than James S. Rollins, a recently elected member of the U.S. House from Columbia, Mo.

At age 26, Rollins had led the subscription drive to establish the University of Missouri in his home town, and had since followed the progress of the institution with intense personal interest. Now, even though the University was again admitting students, he was deeply concerned by what the war had wrought. Morrill’s bill, Rollins understood immediately, was MU’s last best hope for survival.

Rollins, whose severe, full-bearded bronze bust has intimidated Jesse Hall visitors for decades, was in life a far more accommodating fellow. A slaveholder who abhorred Southern secessionism, he used his congenial nature and middle-of-the-road bona fides to keep Missouri’s increasingly polarized political class focused on what he felt mattered most: the economic and intellectual development of the state.

In 1860, Rollins was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Once there, he quickly emerged as an important ally to the Republican president. Rollins’ late conversion to the merits of the Thirteenth Amendment, for example, was instrumental in “Our country relies upon engineers and mechanics as its right arm to do the handiwork of the nation. Let us then, furnish the means for that man to acquire culture, skill and efficiency.helping Lincoln secure a permanent end to slavery. He was also an ardent backer of those who, like Jonathan Turner, were eager to broaden the franchise of public universities. Morrill’s bill was easy for him to support, and he did so enthusiastically. When it became law, Rollins was determined that the University would benefit from the 330,000 acres of federal land allotted to the state.

Accepting the terms of the new law, now called the Morrill Act, meant establishing both a normal school (for training teachers) and a College of Mechanical and Industrial Arts. The Missouri General Assembly did this in 1864, but took no action to determine exactly where these new schools would be located.

In 1865, victorious Republicans drafted a new state constitution. Its intent seemed chiefly to enact measures punishing their recently defeated Confederate enemies, but it also reaffirmed the legislature’s desire to embrace the terms of the Morrill Act. Problem was, the majority were not in the least bit interested in using the act to in any way benefit MU.

After Lincoln’s death, Rollins found himself increasingly at odds with the Radical Republicans dominating Congress. He left his seat in 1866, returned to Missouri and quickly won a position in the Missouri House. His timing could not have been better. For the next two years, Rollins beat back attempt after attempt to locate the new College of Mechanical and Industrial Arts outside of Columbia. He also shot down at least one attempt to remove the University from Columbia altogether.

Finally, in 1868, the dissolution of the Republican majority gave MU’s supporters the room they needed to make a deal. Now a member of the Missouri Senate, Rollins put together a bill that would incorporate both the normal school and the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts within the University in Columbia. Even with a blunted opposition, the campaign to pass the bill dragged on for another two years. During this period the legislation was amended several times, the most consequential allowing for a portion of the Morrill money to fund an MU-affiliated School of Mines and Metallurgy in Rolla — now the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Finally, near the end of 1869, Rollins’ bill passed. After a brief veto scare Gov. Thomas Fletcher signed it on Feb. 24, 1870. Word reached Columbia at midnight. Bells rang while students and citizens poured onto the still landscape-challenged lawn in front of Academic Hall. For hours they whooped and celebrated with torches and fireworks. The University of Missouri was reborn, its future at last secure.

Over the next 150 years, the Morrill Act and additional laws expanding on it would come to be recognized as among the most transformative pieces of educational legislation in the nation’s history. Today the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, an organization representing both original land-grant institutions like MU, as well as those public colleges and universities that embrace the land-grant mission, boasts 217 member institutions. According to the association, these institutions enroll more than 4.6 million students, employ some 645,000 faculty members and conduct more than $34 billion in research.

At MU, the College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts became the foundation of what President Lathrop and his successors had always imagined: a comprehensive university, accessible to all. Today, MU boasts an annual budget of $1.92 billion. The muddy fields where Merrill’s Horse paraded are luminous, oak-shaded lawns. Some 345 buildings on 1,250 acres now encircle the columns that mark the original location of Academic Hall.

For his part, Rollins continued his devotion to the institution he had, in a sense, founded twice. Appointed to the Board of Curators in 1869, Rollins was officially named pater universitatis Missouriensis, “father of the University of Missouri,” in 1872. He served on the board, much of that time as its president, until April 19, 1886, his 74th birthday. He died in Columbia two years later.

Reader Comments

Araminta Napier wrote on February 12, 2014

Love this article! It's so interesting the debate over state's rights has gone on since the beginnings of our country. To look now at the logic used by Morrill's opponents, the slippery slope argument seems laughable. Had Morrill's bill been voted down, never to arise again, our nation would have suffered a great loss.

Post a Comment

Reader comments are reviewed by Illumination staff before they are posted, so please keep your message civil and appropriate. All fields are required.

– Will not be published

Back to Top


University of Missouri

Published by the Office of Research

© 2021 The Curators of the University of Missouri