Celebrate the 160th anniversary of the Morrill Act

“It is safe to suppose that there is not a single American citizen who has not been beneficially affected, directly or indirectly, by the scientific direction of the Land-grant Colleges” (Eddy, 1956, p.275).

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed three laws; one banning polygamy in the territories and the second creating a loyalty oath for all government officials. The third is one of the most important pieces of federal legislation in the history of American higher education and an “enduring legacy of his presidency” – the Morrill Land-Grant College Act (Loss, 2012).

Sponsored by Congressman and later Senator Justin Morrill, a Republican and son of a Vermont blacksmith, the law allocated 17 million acres of federal land to states to use or sell to establish public institutions (Senate of United States, nd). Avoiding funding existing public institutions, most states established new agricultural and mechanical colleges. These new, poorly funded colleges were known as “1862” (National Research Council, 1995, p. 1). In time they were called Land-grant Colleges. The deed stated:

[E]each State which may take and claim the benefit of this Act, to the endowment, upkeep and upkeep of at least one college the principal object of which shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning connected with agriculture and the mechanical arts, in such manner as the State Legislatures may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the various activities and occupations of life (Morrill Act) .

The greatest legacy and impact of the Morrill Act is that it ushered in a watershed moment in American higher education, a moment that helped define America’s unique higher education system – Land-grant University (Veysey , 1965; Geiger, 2015). This innovative new system of higher education established the idea that higher education should broadly serve the citizens of the United States (Veysey, 1965; Geiger, 2015).

However, this new mission of public higher education in America was not just about extending advanced learning to new student populations and offering more vocational subjects. Rather, the newly emerged mission called for service to the nation through applied research that developed the best scientific practices in the growing fields of agriculture and the mechanical arts and shared widely with all who could. benefit whether they have attended university or not (Veysey, 1965; Geiger, 2015). And while the mechanical arts were part of the original legislative framework, in reality land-grant institutions largely focused on agricultural interests (Marcus, 2015). “The students learned farming practice and theory and the farmers hoped that the Land-concession staff would provide them with new information on how to farm better and more efficiently” (Marcus, p. 6, 2015).

Central to this new land grant system was the creation of model farms or experimental farms (Eddy, 1956). Although the new system provided for the teaching of agriculture, there was no “agricultural science” at the time and no body of knowledge on which to base its teaching. “The term ‘agriculture’ meant simple agriculture. The model farm appeared to be one of the important parts, if not the most important, of the college” (Eddy, 1956, p. 57). State Agricultural Experiment Stations, from their inception as the first model farms at land-grant universities, have focused on conducting agricultural research for the benefit of a largely agrarian society.

It would not take long for a state to embrace the idea that public higher education and research conducted in land-grant institutions should serve the citizens of the state. There is no clearer example than the Wisconsin idea. A philosophy adopted by the University of Wisconsin system shortly after the enactment and implementation of the Morrill Act of 1862 in University of WisconsinWisconsin’s idea encapsulates “the university’s direct contributions to the state: to government in the form of public office, advice on public policy, provision of information and exercise of technical skills, and to citizens in the form of research aimed at solving problems of importance to the state and carrying out advocacy activities” (Stark, 1995, p. 2).

How completely the University of Wisconsin has embraced the public service mission of the Morrill Act of 1862 via the Wisconsin idea can be seen through its scientific achievements over the years. These achievements include a way to measure butterfat that allowed consumers to pay farmers based on the fat content of milk; discovery of vitamin A and later of the vitamin B complex, which opened up the field of nutrition; discovery of how to biofortify foods with vitamin D, which led to the near eradication of rickets in 1940; the development of Vernal alfalfa which became the basis of the state’s $10 billion forage industry; cloning of a plant gene for the first time; discovery of the SCD-1 gene which plays a critical role in fat metabolism; and genetic sequencing of 99 strains of the common cold virus (University of Wisconsin, Some Notable Achievements).

These advances are just a few of the thousands of discoveries made at the University of Wisconsin since it became a land-grant university in 1866. And this tradition of making scientific advances in the name of the public good and the benefits direct benefits they have provided to millions of people. people in America and beyond can be seen in all land-grant institutions. It is a thread that uniquely defines these institutions that came into being as a result of the Morrill Act of 1862.

The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture is proud to partner with national land-grant institutions to fund research and extension projects that serve the public good.


Eddy, Ed (1956). Colleges for Our Land and Our Time: The Idea of ​​Land Grant in American Education. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Geiger, R. (2015). The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from Founding to World War II. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Loss, CP (July 16, 2012). “Why the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act Still Matters.” Chronicle of higher education. Extract of https://www.chronicle.com/article/Why-the-Morrill-Act-Still/132877.

Marcus, AI (2015). Science as a Service: The Creation and Reformulation of America’s Land-Grant Universities, 1865-1930. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Marcus, IA (2015). Service as Mandate: How America’s Land-Grant Universities Shaped the Modern World, 1920-2015. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

National Research Council. (1995). Land Grant Universities Colleges of Agriculture. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Stark, J. (1995). The Idea of ​​Wisconsin: The Service of the University to the State. Wisconsin Blue Book 1995-1996.

United States Senate. (nd) Justin S. Morrill, United States Senate. Extract of https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Justin_S_Morrill.htm.

University of Wisconsin, Some Notable Accomplishments. Extract of https://cals.wisc.edu/about-cals/history/notable-achievements/.

Veysey, L. (1965). The emergence of the American university. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Photo: Left image of USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, courtesy of USDA. Right image of former Vermont congressman Justin Smith Morrill, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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