Sponsored by Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont, “An Act Donating public lands to the several States and [Territories] which may provide colleges for the benefit of agriculture and the Mechanic arts” marked the first Federal aid to higher education. But the government’s recognition of its obligation to provide schools for its future citizens dates from the beginning of the republic.
“Knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” So wrote the Continental Congress in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. With this ordinance, Congress established a precedent for the support of public education that would grow to substantial commitments in later years.
Land was the key to the Federal Government’s early involvement, for this was the most readily available resource in the unopened continent. As public lands were surveyed into 6-mile square townships, a 1-square-mile section in each township was reserved for the support of public schools. The land itself was rarely used for school construction but rather was sold off, with proceeds used to fund the school program. The system invited misuse by opportunists, and substantial portions of the educational land-grants never benefited education. Nevertheless, land-grant support became a substantial factor in providing education to most American children who could never hope to attend private or charity-supported schools.
The Morrill Act committed the Federal Government to grant each state 30,000 acres of public land issued in the form of “land scrip” certificates for each of its Representatives and Senators in Congress. Although many states squandered the revenue from this endowment, which grew to an allocation of over 100 million acres, the Morrill land grants laid the foundation for a national system of state colleges and universities. In some cases, the land sales financed existing institutions; in others, new schools were chartered by the states. Major universities such as Nebraska, Washington State, Clemson, and Cornell were chartered as land-grant schools. State colleges brought higher education within the reach of millions of students, a development that could not help but reshape the nation’s social and economic fabric.
(Information excerpted from Milestone Documents in
the National Archives. [Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration,
1995], p. 57.)