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Thank You Justin Morrill; Morrill Act Turns 150

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Justin Smith Morrill
Justin Smith Morrill

Justin Morrill is a Vermont native responsible for the founding of state universities across the country. He’s the Morrill behind the act signed on July 2, 1862, by President Abraham Lincoln that gave 30,000 acres of public land to every state in the Union that was then sold to build a state college. The son of a blacksmith, Morrill believed in better educational opportunities for the children of artisans, farmers, and laborers.

New Hampshire received 150,000 acres and sold it for $80,000, founding the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts in 1866.

In 1847, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, an 1833 Yale University graduate who became a professor at Illinois College the same year, began advocating for a publicly funded system to provide "industrial" education, suited for the needs of the working (industrial) classes.”

Six years later, the Illinois Legislature adopted a resolution drafted by Turner calling for lawmakers to enact a bill to fund a land-grant system of colleges. That same year Morrill presented his bill, also known as the Land Grant College Act, adding the provision that grants should not be equal but, rather, be based on the number of congressional representatives per state. Congress passed the bill in 1859 but it was vetoed by President James Buchanan, believing higher education should be left to the states.

The bill was resubmitted in 1861 with an amendment proposing the teaching of military tactics as well as engineering and agriculture. It was signed by Lincoln the following year. During the Civil War only two states, Iowa and Kansas, adopted land-grant resolutions.

More than 20 years before Durham farmer Benjamin Thompson bequeathed his land to the state to build an agricultural school, a Lyme businessman offered his 400 acres for the site of the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts. An offer from Dartmouth College led to it being built in Hanover, instead, where it was under the direction of Dartmouth's president.

Thompson died in 1890. On March 5, 1891, Gov. Hiram A. Tuttle signed an act accepting the conditions of Thompson's will and in April, he authorized the college's move to Durham.