Today in NC State History: Morrill Act signed into law

July 2, 2012
By Chris Saunders

PrintNC State has produced some of North Carolina’s most distinguished leaders in engineering, agriculture and politics for 125 years. So it seems ironic that the university owes its existence to a man not from the Old North State, but from the Green Mountain State.

Justin Smith Morrill, the son of a blacksmith and farmer, was a U.S. congressman who grew up in Vermont wanting to attend college but lacking the necessary money that undertaking required. He was self-educated and served in the House of Representatives and the Senate for almost 44 years.

Justin Smith Morrill

Justin Smith Morrill

It was Morrill’s own experiences that gave him the persistence to pursue passage of an education bill that would secure federal dollars for land-grant universities focusing on disciplines like agriculture, engineering and mechanics. He was first elected to Congress in 1855 as a Republican, and according to Alice Elizabeth Reagan’s North Carolina State: A Narrative History, “After his arrival in Washington, Morrill worked assiduously for his ‘land-grant’ education bill.”

After years of political opposition from southern Democrats, Morrill’s final bill provided 30,000 acres of public land for each member of Congress. That land and the money obtained from any sale of that land was to be used as an endowment to create at least one college in each state.

President James Buchanan vetoed the measure in 1859, but the Morrill Act was signed into law on this day in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln.

“Lincoln, Morrill, and other Republicans supported the land-grant education idea because it taught the dignity of free labor, and provided a means for social mobility,” Reagan writes.

Though North Carolina and other Confederate states wouldn’t see the benefits of the law until after the Civil War, the Morrill Act created the environment in which the North Carolina College of Agriculture¬† and Mechanic Arts, later known as NC State, would flourish.

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