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Steve Stark, Fargo, Published June 30 2012

1862 act changed nation

An incredible, but elusive, anniversary passes this week that transformed American lives 150 years ago. Public education’s opportunities, research and impact were altered by the pen, position and passion of President Abraham Lincoln. On July 2, 1862, the Morrill Act created the land-grant college system for Lincoln’s beloved United States of America.

Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill had tried valiantly to push his proposal through Congress twice before. His idea elaborated on many previously held enlightened American concepts about education and the nation. The national government could allow grants of land in each state to be sold with a specific purpose for the profits: to establish colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts.

The idea of a college education for the common folk was a radical idea compared to the private colleges that offered a classical education only to the privileged. That concept of practical public teaching of agriculture, mechanical arts and classical liberal arts to everyday citizens was a profound example of a democracy’s possibilities.

Morrill’s act gave 30,000 acres of land to each state for each congressional representative. The South opposed it since they had fewer representatives than the Northern states owing to population and slavery, which robbed their black citizenry of equal status. When the South seceded from the union, their votes left the floors of Congress as well. Passage of the Morrill Act by the Northern states was assured – especially with the added provisions of military training and exclusion of any state separated from the union.

In short historical time, the land-grant colleges advanced with even greater contributions by the 1887 Hatch Act creating agricultural experiment research stations. The second Morrill Act three years later brought the South’s historically black colleges and institutions into the fold of the land grants.

North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota are two of a dozen land-grant schools that have a Morrill Hall on campus, named for the Vermont legislator with a high school education. I am personally proud to have contributed an actual signature of his to the display at NDSU’s Morrill Hall.

Lincoln, the self-educated visionary Republican president, had less than two years of formal schooling. In his first term, ravaged by Civil War and the death of a young son, he created the United States Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act and transcontinental railroad charters – all ventures that gave immeasurable and lasting value to North Dakota.

Traditionally, July 2 can be a time of overbearing heat and overwhelming events. That’s the date in 1776 when American colonies declared their independence from England. It was the second day of bloody conflict at Gettysburg in 1963. The Civil Rights Act passed on July 2, 1964. On that day in 1862, the Morrill Act changed America forever.


Stark performs historical programs as Theodore Roosevelt, draws editorial cartoons for The Forum, and teaches.