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Laurels for Morrill

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The Library of Congress this month will celebrate the legacy of a man who helped bring higher education to millions of Americans and who played a key role in the creation of one of the nation’s most splendid pieces of architecture – the Jefferson Building.

Justin Morrill

On June 25, the Library plays host to a conference that explores three events that shaped America’s knowledge-based democracy: the founding of the National Academy of Sciences, the founding of the Carnegie libraries, and the passage of the Morrill land-grant colleges act – the last the work of then-Rep. Justin S. Morrill.

The conference, which is free and open to the public, takes place in the Coolidge Auditorium and features three panel discussions and remarks by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).

The daylong event concludes at the Lincoln Memorial with speeches and the ceremonial laying of a wreath.

“Justin Morrill was not only the longest-serving member of Congress in the first 160 years of its history, he was arguably the most important elected official in creating a nationwide infrastructure for higher education and reinforcing a knowledge-based democracy in the second half of the 19th century,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said.

Morrill’s legislation helped establish public universities across America following its passage in 1862 – and thus opened the door to higher education for millions of ordinary Americans.

Morrill, the son of a Vermont blacksmith, had very little formal learning himself – only the modern equivalent of an elementary-school education.

He largely was self-taught but possessed a practical and curious mind: He amassed an impressive personal library. He studied architecture on his own and designed his family home. He owned a dry-goods business and did so well that he retired comfortably at 38.

Morrill Act

In 1854, Morrill was elected to Congress, where he became a prominent figure on the House Ways and Means Committee and, later, the Senate Finance Committee – though today he remains best known for the education act that bears his name.

As a member of Congress, Morrill made himself an expert in political economy.

“The precedent he set for the protective tariffs remained U.S. policy for decades,” said Barbara Bair, a curator in the Manuscript Division.

Morrill also worked hard to promote the interests of the Library of Congress, and he personally used its resources.

An exhibition accompanying the Coolidge event includes, among other things, a register that lists books checked out by Morrill from the Library – he once received a notice from the Librarian when he failed to return “The Scarlet Letter” and the “Dictionary of Political Economy” on time.

Morrill more than made up for his tardiness: He was instrumental in getting approval from Congress for a separate building for the Library on Capitol Hill.

In 1879, Morrill strongly endorsed the plan for a separate building in a major speech before Congress.

“There’s this great quote: ‘We just don’t have enough room. We either have to move out the Congress to keep the Library here or move out the Library to keep the Congress here. You choose,’ ” Bair said, paraphrasing Morrill.

He also promoted the idea that the Jefferson Building should be much more than just a place to house books.

“The idea that it should be a showcase – that it should be brilliantly beautiful – also was not the majority viewpoint,” Bair said. “Morrill pushed that through.”

Still, Morrill mostly is remembered today for the legislation that fostered the establishment of public universities – many of which still house halls named in his honor – from coast to coast.

The Morrill Act funded the creation of such universities by granting federal land to the states to develop or sell – every state received 30,000 acres for each of its representatives and senators in Congress. These schools would teach agriculture, science and engineering as well as classical studies.

Many of the schools established as a result of the act remain major institutions – the University of California system, Cornell, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and Iowa State, for example.

“Almost any college that has the word ‘state’ in it probably is a land-grant college, and some of the major research institutions that are public universities come from a land-grant tradition,” said Michelle Krowl, a curator in Manuscript.

An expansion of the act, passed in 1890, fostered the establishment or expansion of many historically black colleges – Tuskegee University, Florida A&M and Alcorn State, among others.

Part of Morrill’s interest was economic: A better-educated populace of farmers would produce more, sell more, hire more and make the country more prosperous and secure.

The act also reflected a commitment to his rural constituents.

“People tend to think about farmers as not professionals: It’s just something that people do,” Krowl said. “But with the land-grant colleges, agriculture and mechanical sciences became worthy fields of study – not something you just pick up along the way.”

Morrill also understood – through his own humble upbringing – the importance of providing opportunity for a higher education to everyone.

“On a very personal level, he really wanted to help people like himself,” Bair said. “It’s about the democratization of education.”

Congress passed the Morrill Act in 1859, but President James Buchanan vetoed it. After Southern states that opposed the plan seceded from the Union, Lincoln signed the revamped act into law in 1862.

The act made a profound impact that continued for more than a century in all corners of the country – in 1994, the act was expanded again to include Native American schools.

“Look at how many colleges benefited from the Morrill land grant and how many people graduated from those colleges: You probably have millions of people for whom college otherwise might not have been possible,” Krowl said. “You’ve got all of the discoveries that come out of the research institutions, the educational impact for Americans of diverse backgrounds – the legacy is incredible.”

Comments (3)

  1. I am truly amazed at the lack of notoriety and or attention this man has received down through history and lack thereof.

  2. The act also reflected a commitment to his rural constituents.

  3. I am distant relative of Justin Morrill’s (we share a great grandparent Isaac Morrill – x7 for me and x4 for him), and I connect so deeply with his legacy and his belief that accessible quality public education is the key to economic and social prosperity. He is a true American hero whose contributions helped make America what it is today.

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