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The Morrill Act

Throughout the 1840s and 50s, Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois College championed the idea of agricultural colleges. Illinois Senator Lyman Trumbull took up the cause. He crafted a bill that would fund a land-grant college in each state. He thought the bill would have a better chance of passing if it was introduced by an eastern congressman, so he enlisted the help of Justin Morrill of Vermont, who introduced the bill.

Congress passed the legislation in 1859, but it was vetoed by President Buchanan. Morrill resubmitted the bill, adding an amendment requiring the colleges to teach military tactics as well as agriculture and engineering. It again passed in Congress, and this time it was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on this date in 1862.

The act provided the states with 30,000 acres of Federal land for each member in their Congressional delegations. The states would sell the land and use the income to fund colleges that focused on agriculture and mechanics. The bill came with the rather awkward title of “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts." It became more simply known as the Morrill Act.

Morrill himself never had the opportunity for higher education, but he was proud of his role in establishing the land grant colleges. He described the act as “an opportunity in every State for a liberal and larger education to larger numbers, not merely to those destined to sedentary professions, but to those needing higher instruction for the world’s business, for the industrial pursuits and professions of life.” Prior to the Morrill Act, higher education was available primarily to the sons of the upper class. The Land grand colleges would make continued education available to the children of working-class families.

In January, 1890, the North Dakota legislature passed a bill calling for the establishment of the North Dakota Agricultural College at Fargo. Funded through the Morrill Act, the college opened its doors on January 3rd, 1892, with 123 students and three professors. Today, the college has grown into North Dakota State University. Three of the first college buildings are still in use. They are Old Main, South Engineering, and Putnam Library.


Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher



Library of Congress. “Morrill Act.” https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/morrill.html  Accessed 5/21/2021.

Texas A&M. “The Morrill Act Explained.” https://today.tamu.edu/2018/07/01/the-morrill-act-explained/  Accessed 5/21/2021.

NDSU Archives. “North Dakota Agricultural College.” https://library.ndsu.edu/fargo-history/?q=content/north-dakota-agricultural-college-ndsu  Accessed 5/21/2021.

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