Justin Smith Morrill (1810-1898), an American legislator, is best known for his educational legislation providing Federal land grants to the states to set up agricultural and mechanic arts colleges.
Justin Smith Morrill was born in Strafford, Vt., on April 14, 1810, to the family of a blacksmith of modest means. His formal education ended at 14, when he became a general-store clerk. He gained more experience later as a tradesman in Portland, Maine, and then returned to Strafford as a partner and manager of a country store. After 15 years as an active businessman, he went into farming.
In an age when the country store was the local gathering spot for social information and political discussion, Morrill's work made him well known. He also participated in politics, serving on local and state committees for the Whig party. In 1854 he first won a seat in Congress. Thus began continual congressional service which lasted until his death—12 years as a representative and 32 years as a senator.
Morrill's interest in educational legislation started early. There were then no colleges for agriculture and few offering advanced engineering training. At first Morrill promoted an unsuccessful resolution for a national agricultural school on the model of West Point. In 1857 he introduced his first bill providing for use of public land to form a common fund shared by all the states for the advancement of scientific and industrial education. The measure proved premature and received President James Buchanan's veto. However, by July 1862 Morrill had introduced the plan again and won both congressional approval and President Abraham Lincoln's signature.
The idea for the use of public lands may not have originated with Morrill, but his move charted a new course for Federal aid to higher education which directly affected public educational life in every state. His measure provided each state with public land (on the basis of 30,000 acres per each national representative and senator) for the establishment of schools of applied science. The Morrill legislation of 1890 provided further Federal funds for the land-grant colleges.
Education was not his only concern. In Congress, Morrill was well regarded for his knowledge of finance, and he is credited with shaping the protective tariff legislation of 1861. In the House he served as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and in the Senate he was chairman of the Finance Committee. He took an active interest in Washington, D.C., leading moves to complete the Washington Monument and to construct buildings for the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court, among others. He died in Washington on Dec. 28, 1898.
The standard biography is William Belmont Parker, The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill (1924). Also informative is Earle Dudley Ross, Democracy's College: The Land-grant Movement in the Formative Stage (1942). □