By BRETT ZONGKER
WASHINGTON — In the midst of an all-consuming Civil War that divided the nation 150 years ago, Congress was able to muster the will to pass legislation that would transform higher education.
It was this week in 1862 when President Abraham Lincoln signed a law that would establish a network of land-grant universities. The Morrill Act was meant to expand access to college education so working-class people could have practical studies in agriculture, military tactics, mechanics and classical studies — expanding higher education beyond the elite Eastern schools.
The law sponsored by Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill gave each state federal land to sell in order to fund the creation of colleges. They would eventually include Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Maryland, the University of Missouri and many others.
Land-grant schools now enroll 4.6 million students nationwide and command about two-thirds of all federally-funded academic research, amounting to $34 billion annually.
It’s a breakthrough that almost didn’t happen, though. Lawmakers from the South and Western territories had strong reservations in the 1850s and 1860s.
Sen. Clement Clay of Alabama called it “one of the most monstrous, iniquitous and dangerous measures which have ever been submitted to Congress.” Virginia Sen. James Mason said it was “an unconstitutional robbing of the Treasury for the purpose of bribing the states.”
Despite regional opposition over the federal government’s role in expanding education and economic development and its legality under the Constitution, the legislation passed both houses of Congress in 1857. Still, President James Buchanan vetoed the bill.
It wasn’t until Lincoln’s election and the secession of some Southern states that Morrill’s bill passed Congress and won the president’s signature in July 1862. No state “in rebellion” against the U.S. could benefit from the act, so it was expanded to the South after the war was resolved.
Later the effort was expanded again to include historically black universities in 1890 and Native American tribal colleges in 1994.
Looking back on the land-grant movement, Librarian of Congress James Billington ranks it as one of the great milestones of American history because colleges would become the nation’s “infrastructure for a knowledge-based economy,” he said.
Rather than expand theoretical science and knowledge, the U.S. was creating a new college education focused on practical research to improve agriculture production and mechanics.
“It’s a very uniquely American kind of thing really,” Billington said. “This really meant that America had in the second half of the 19th century practical training grounds for the people who really modernized and tamed the wild West.”
Growing an educated workforce in engineering and agriculture set the stage for the nation’s growth in the 20th century, he said.
It also changed ideas about education. Some of the same lawmakers who passed the land-grant act also were creating state fairs and city libraries to expand the dissemination of knowledge.
To mark the 150th anniversary of this shift in U.S. education, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is devoting part of its program on the National Mall to celebrating the nation’s land-grant colleges.
The festival, which draws about 1 million visitors each year, is offering mini-university classes, 4-H family activities and demonstrations of the schools’ current research through Sunday.
Hula dancers from the University of Hawaii are demonstrating their school’s commitment to preserving Hawaiian culture while the school also has a booth showing its research to expand local food production.