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1862 Morrill Act and the history of agricultural education

This stamp commemorated the founding of both Penn State and Michigan State, in 1855
This stamp commemorated the founding of both Penn State and Michigan State, in 1855
Wikimedia commons

“Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” These words, written by the founding fathers during the days of the Continental Congress, were one for the foundations for the 1862 Morrill Act, which established the land-grant institution. These institutions were established for the teaching of agriculture, and as such, occupy a unique place in history.

Land was a readily available resource for the federal government to support education in the early days. One square mile of every six-square-mile township was dedicated to public education. Usually, this land was sold, and the proceeds used to fund public schools.

More specifically, the 1862 Morrill Act (as opposed to the 1890 Act discussed in a previous article) granted ownership of 30,000 acres of public land to states for each member of Congress. Since more populous states have larger delegations to the House of Representatives, they received more land. Funds from the sale of this land then were used to support existing colleges, or to create new ones, "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts".

One such new institution was Cornell University, which was created with funds from the sale of these lands, through act of the state legislature, in 1865. Cornell began teaching students in 1867. By comparison, every other school in the Ivy League was founded before the the end of the American Revolution, as was Rutgers University, the oldest land grant institution. Founded in 1766, Rutgers was declared New Jersey's land grant college in 1864, and accordingly is currently celebrating 150 years. However, two schools were chartered by states as land grants before the federal legislation: Penn State and Michigan State, and these sometime claim the title of oldest land grant college.

Also significant to this history is the signer of the 1862 Morrill Act, President Abraham Lincoln, who said, "The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence."