The First Morrill Act
July 2, 1862
The Morrill Act of 1862 was central to the emergence and development of public higher education in the United States. It built and expanded on the significant efforts made in the 1700s. While the Northwest Ordinance and the resulting Ohio land grants for higher education laid the foundation for a system, it was the Morrill Act that provided the framework for building real institutions. The Morrill Act provided grants of federal land to the states, which they could then sell and use the proceeds to fund colleges and universities. The Morrill Act, in the end, was responsible for the establishment or support of more than one hundred such land-grant colleges and universities, including many of the country's leading academic institutions (see Table 1). The course of American higher education was profoundly impacted by this legislation.
The act was the result of years of legislative effort and both political and sectional competition. Legislative games and machinations were needed to avoid hostile committees and get the bill to a vote in Congress. When the act was first passed in 1858, it was successfully vetoed by President James Buchanan, with nearly uniform Southern opposition, due largely to constitutional concerns. It took the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the secession of the Southern states to create a political climate where the Morrill Act could become law. Even after passage, early implementation of the Morrill Act was very difficult and troubled. Its educational potential and significance were not realized until many years after its enactment in 1862. The Morrill Act traveled a very long and difficult road, but its final impact was and is enormous.