WASHINGTON — In the midst of an all-consuming Civil War that divided the nation 150 years ago, Congress was able to muster the will to pass legislation that would transform higher education.
It was this week in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln signed a law that would establish a network of land-grant universities. The Morrill Act was meant to expand access to college education so working-class people could have practical studies in agriculture, military tactics, mechanics and classical studies — expanding higher education beyond the elite Eastern schools.
The law sponsored by Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill gave each state federal land to sell in order to fund the creation of colleges. They would eventually include Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, the University of Missouri and many others.
Land-grant schools now enroll 4.6 million students nationwide and command about two-thirds of all federally-funded academic research, amounting to $34 billion annually.
It’s a breakthrough that almost didn’t happen, though. Lawmakers from the South and Western territories had strong reservations in the 1850s and 1860s.
Sen. Clement Clay of Alabama called it “one of the most monstrous, iniquitous and dangerous measures which have ever been submitted to Congress.” Virginia Sen. James Mason said it was “an unconstitutional robbing of the Treasury for the purpose of bribing the states.”
Despite regional opposition over the federal government’s role in expanding education and economic development and its legality under the Constitution, the legislation passed both houses of Congress in 1857. Still, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill.
It wasn’t until Lincoln’s election and the secession of some Southern states that Morrill’s bill passed Congress and won the president’s signature in July 1862. No state “in rebellion” against the U.S. could benefit from the act, so it was expanded to the South after the war was resolved.
Later the effort was expanded again to include historically black universities in 1890 and Native American tribal colleges in 1994.
Looking back on the land-grant movement, Librarian of Congress James Billington ranks it as one of the great milestones of American history because colleges would become the nation’s “infrastructure for a knowledge-based economy,” he said.
Rather than expand theoretical science and knowledge, the U.S. was creating a new college education focused on practical research to improve agriculture production and mechanics.
“It’s a very uniquely American kind of thing really,” Billington said. “This really meant that America had in the second half of the 19th century practical training grounds for the people who really modernized and tamed the wild West.”
Growing an educated workforce in engineering and agriculture set the stage for the nation’s growth in the 20th century, he said.
It also changed ideas about education. Some of the same lawmakers who passed the land-grant act also were creating state fairs and city libraries to expand the dissemination of knowledge.
“The concept of ordinary people, the sons and daughters of ordinary people going to college was a breakthrough,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the former president of Michigan State University. “This concept of access and opportunity is now an integral part of public higher education.”
To mark the 150th anniversary of this shift in U.S. education, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is devoting part of its program on the National Mall to celebrating the nation’s land-grant colleges.
Visitors Leah Simon of Alexandia, Va., and Aubrey DeVillez of Houston were surprised to hear that land-grant colleges got their start during the Civil War.
“Congress can’t pass anything today,” Simon said.
The festival, which draws about 1 million visitors each year, is offering mini-university classes, 4-H family activities and demonstrations of the schools’ current research through Sunday.
Technicians from Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies are demonstrating their work to uncover dinosaur fossils, showing the careful process to remove fossils from rock and plant roots.
Hula dancers from the University of Hawaii are demonstrating their school’s commitment to preserving Hawaiian culture while the school also has a booth showing its research to expand local food production.
The University of Maryland is featuring its 4-H robotics programs on the National Mall. West Virginia University is demonstrating its steel drum band tradition. And the University of Missouri is showing its efforts to promote healthy eating in the state through its presence in every county.
Susan Mills-Gray, a nutrition specialist in the University of Missouri’s extension service who was greeting visitors Friday at the festival, said she was the first person in her family to go to college, in part because of the school’s reach to all corners of the state. That’s what sets land-grant schools apart, she said.
“We’re still touching people where they’re at — in their comfort zones,” she said. “That’s a unique relationship between the university and its people.”