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July 2: 160th Anniversary of the Morrill Act. Right image of USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Right image of previous Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill.

Celebrate the 160th Anniversary of the Morrill Act

Nifa Authors
Lori Tyler Gula, Senior Public Affairs Specialist
The following is an excerpt from the dissertation, “The Purpose and Value of Agricultural Experiment Stations Today: A Perception Study of the Directors of State Agricultural Experiment Stations” by Lori Tyler Gula, Ph.D. (University of New Hampshire, December 2019)

“It is safe to assume that there is not a single American citizen who has not been affected in some beneficial way, either directly or indirectly, by the scientific leadership of the Land-grant Colleges” (Eddy, 1956, p. 275).

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed one of the most important pieces of federal legislation in the history of American higher education and an “enduring legacy of his presidency” – the Morrill Land-Grant College Act (Loss, 2012).

Sponsored by Congressman and later Senator Justin Morrill, a Republican and the son of a blacksmith, of Vermont, the act allocated 17 million acres of federal land for the states to be used or sold to establish public institutions (United States Senate, n.d.). Eschewing financing existing public institutions, most states established new agricultural and mechanical colleges. These new colleges, poorly financed, were known as “1862s” (National Research Council, 1995, p. 1). In time they were called Land-grant Colleges, the first of which was founded at Kansas State University. The act specified:

[E]ach State which may take and claim the benefit of this act, to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life (Morrill Act).

The Morrill Act’s greatest legacy and impact is that it ushered in a watershed moment in American higher education, one that helped define the unique system of American higher education—the Land-grant University (Veysey, 1965; Geiger, 2015). This novel, new system of higher education established the idea that higher education should broadly serve the citizens of the United States (Veysey, 1965; Geiger, 2015).

However, this new mission of public higher education in America was not just about expanding advanced learning to new populations of students and offering more vocationally oriented subjects. Rather, the newly emerged mission called for service to the nation through applied research that developed the best scientific practices in the growing fields of agriculture and the mechanical arts and broadly shared with anyone who could benefit from them, whether they attended college or not (Veysey, 1965; Geiger, 2015). And while mechanical arts was part of the original legislative framework, in reality, Land-grant Institutions largely focused on agricultural interests (Marcus, 2015). “Students learned agricultural practice and theory and farmers hoped that Land-grant personnel would provide them with new information about how to farm more efficiently and effectively” (Marcus, p. 6, 2015). 

Central to this new Land-grant System was the establishment of model farms or experimental farms (Eddy, 1956). Although the new system called for teaching of agriculture, there was no “agricultural science” at the time and no body of knowledge on which to base teaching it. “The term ‘agriculture’ meant simple farming. The model farm loomed as one of the important, if not the most important, parts of the college” (Eddy, 1956, p. 57). State agricultural experiment stations, from their early founding as the first model farms at Land-grant Universities, focused on conducting agricultural research to broadly benefit a largely agrarian society.

It would not take long for one state to embrace the idea that public higher education, and research conducted at Land-grant Institutions, should serve the citizens of the state. There is no more clear example of it than the Wisconsin Idea. A philosophy adopted by the University of Wisconsin System shortly after the Morrill Act of 1862 was enacted and implemented at the University of Wisconsin, the Wisconsin idea encapsulates “the university’s direct contributions to the state: to the government in the forms of serving in office, offering advice about public policy, providing information and exercising technical skill, and to the citizens in the forms of doing research directed at solving problems that are important to the state and conducting outreach activities” (Stark, 1995, p. 2).

One can see how completely the University of Wisconsin adopted the public service mission of the Morrill Act of 1862 via the Wisconsin Idea through its scientific achievements over the years. These achievements include a way to measure butterfat that allowed consumers to pay farmers based on fat content of milk; discovery of vitamin A and later vitamin B complex, which opened up the field of nutrition; discovery of how to biofortify food with vitamin D, which led to the near eradication of rickets by 1940; development of Vernal alfalfa that became the foundations for state’s $10 billion forage industry; cloning of a plant gene for the first time; discovery of the SCD-1 gene that plays a critical role in fat metabolism; and genetically sequencing all 99 strains of the common cold virus (University of Wisconsin, Some Notable Achievements).

These advances are just a few of thousands of discoveries made at the University of Wisconsin since it became a Land-grant University in 1866. And this tradition of making scientific advances in the name of the public good and the direct benefits they provided to millions of people in American and beyond can be seen at all Land-grant Institutions. It is a thread that uniquely defines these institutions that came about as a result of the Morrill Act of 1862.

USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is proud to partner with the nation’s Land-grant Institutions to fund research and Extension projects that serve the public good.


Eddy, E.D. (1956). Colleges for Our Land and Time: The Land-Grant Idea in American Education. New York, N.Y.: Harper & Brothers.

Geiger, R. (2015). The History of American Higher Education: Learning and Culture from the Founding to World War II. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Loss, C.P. (July 16, 2012). “Why the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act Still Matters.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Marcus, A.I. (2015). Science as Service: Establishing and Reformulating American Land-Grant Universities, 1865-1930. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

Marcus, A.I. (2015). Service as Mandate: How American Land-Grant Universities Shaped the Modern world, 1920-2015. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.

National Research Council. (1995). Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Stark, J. (1995). The Wisconsin Idea: The University’s Service to the State. Wisconsin Blue Book 1995-1996.

United States Senate. (n.d.) Justin S. Morrill, United States Senate. Retrieved from

University of Wisconsin, Some Notable Achievements. Retrieved from

Veysey, L. (1965). The Emergence of the American University. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Photo: Left image of USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, courtesy of USDA. Right image of previous Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill, courtesy of the Library of Congress.  

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