A History of Education: The American Educational System: Morrill Land Grant Acts

[Editor’s Note: This is the 35th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

As we’ve seen throughout this series, post-secondary education in the American colonies was only available to a limited segment of the population and focused on just a few subjects. The colleges founded were done so in association with Christian denominations, and they accepted predominantly white men pursuing classical and professional disciplines. While colleges established following the American Revolution and the creation of the United States broadened both enrollment and fields of study, a lack of reliable funding meant that many closed.

In the early- to mid-1800s, interest in educating the population more widely grew, as did the demand for higher education in agricultural and technical disciplines. Johnathan Baldwin Turner, a professor at Illinois College, supported a more accessible “industrial education,” and he presented his “Plan for a State University for the Industrial Classes,” at an academic conference in 1850. This plan contained many aspects of the later land-grant university system.

Land-grant institutions are colleges and universities that receive benefits due to the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. These acts promoted establishing institutions of higher learning focused on agricultural and mechanical arts but without excluding other scientific and classical studies.

In 1857, Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced a bill in Congress to establish agricultural colleges through grants of land to the states. The federal government would give out federal land, or the rights to that land, to each of the states for the purpose of establishing these colleges. This wasn’t without precedent. The government already used this practice to encourage railroad development through the Land Grant Act of 1850.

However, granting land to support higher education was a novel prospect. Congress passed Morrill’s bill in 1859, mostly along a North-South divide, and only by a slim margin; it wasn’t enough to overcome a presidential veto by James Buchanan. Morrill presented the bill again in 1862, by which time the political landscape had changed. The Civil War had begun, and many members of Congress from the southern states were absent. In addition, this new version expanded proposed areas of study at the colleges to include military strategy. This bill passed overwhelmingly, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it on July 2, 1862.

Between 1872 and 1890, then-Senator Morrill introduced 12 additional bills to strengthen the early land-grant university system. When Congress passed the last of those bills in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Morrill Act of 1890 into law. Key elements of this version were funding for the land-grant university system and prohibiting racial discrimination in admissions policies at these institutions. It led to the formation of what are known as “historically black colleges and universities” (HBCUs), also known as the 1890 Institutions.


Next week: Common School Period Wrap-Up


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.

To read part 14: European Influences, Jon Amos Comenius, click here.

To read part 15, European Influences,  Froebel, click here.

To read part 16, European Influences, Herbart, click here.

To read part 17, European Influences, Herbert Spencer, click here.

To read part 18, Colonial Period, Puritans, click here.

To read part 19, Colonial Period, New England Books, click here.

To read part 20, Colonial Period, Massachusetts Education Laws, click here.

To read part 21, Colonial Period, Harvard College, click here.

To read part 22, Early National Period, Benjamin Franklin, click here.

To read part 23, Early National Period, Benjamin Rush, click here.

To read part 24, Early National Period, Thomas Jefferson, click here.

To read part 25, Early National Period, Noah Webster, click here.

To read part 26, Early National Period, Educational Ordinances, click here.

To read part 27, Early National Period, Dartmouth College/Yale Report, click here.

To read part 28, Common School Period, Horace Mann, click here.

To read part 29, Common School Period, Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke College, click here.

To read part 30, Common School Period, McGuffey Readers, click here.

To read part 31, Common School Period, Catholic vs. Protestant Education, click here.

To read part 32, Common School Period, Compulsory Education, click here.

To read part 33, Common School Period, African American Education, click here.

To read part 34, Common School Period, National Education Association, click here.



[1] na. (August 29, 2019). “The U.S. Land-Grant University System: An Overview.” EveryCRSReport.com. Retrieved from



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