The Man Who Supersized Higher Education

When most people discuss the Civil War, they often think of battlefields, cities on fire, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and a divided nation. Imagery evoked by the novel and movie Gone with the Wind may even come to mind. The life of Justin Morrill (1810-1898), a Northerner born two hundred years ago this week, tells a very different story, distinct from the grace and charm of the South. Both stories, however, leave a hallmark of struggles. Few people recall the battle scene in an equally important place -- the United States Congress.

Justin Morrill himself grew up in an average family in Vermont and received an average education, but with a tremendous motivation to know more. His self-education and local involvement in Vermont would serve him well later on as a Representative in Washington, D.C., yet it was his early practical learning through local financing and trade with Europe that would project him into the controversy of one of his first policies in 1860 -- the Morrill Tariff. Compared to the fully-fledged European protectionism at the time, the Morrill Tariff was fairly mild. In this policy, Morrill followed the same historical pathway as one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, who described Europe's defensive position in the Federalist Papers thus: "[T]he superiority ... has tempted her to plume herself as mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit"[i]. Centuries later, something resembling genuine free trade, what the founding fathers aimed for, would not begin to take place until the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) entered into force in 1948.

Surveying Morrill's public life, it's apparent that he had two competing attributes: patience and determination. In his political journals, he kept a detailed list of every registered voter in his district, which included his attendance of their social events, the things he did for them, how they were doing in various activities, and so on. Morrill's biographer, Coy Cross, called him "a master politician"[ii]. Morrill was his own pollster. He made it his business to know what his constituents wanted and needed.

But Morrill also knew what he himself wanted. His modest education constantly reminded him that he missed out on a higher education, and he hoped to change that opportunity for all Americans. During the darkest and most uncertain hours of the Civil War in 1862, Morrill made a second attempt to pass a bill, achieving a land-grant under the Lincoln administration to supply higher education in proportion to the number of representatives in each state. The Land-Grant Act is also known as the Morrill Act. Rejected initially by President Buchanan, Morrill already had a close political relationship with Abraham Lincoln that began during Lincoln's 1860 campaign. However, Lincoln needed to be persuaded with one major alteration to the Morrill Act during its second attempt. Colleges established by the land-grants also needed to provide training for future soldiers, otherwise known as R.O.T.C. This would later influence the G.I. Bill, perpetuating support for American higher education and research. Undoubtedly, if the North had lost the Civil War, the Morrill Act might have been challenged and rejected. Few people know and appreciate that it was the power of the sword that brought about the expansion of higher education to usher in the power of the pen.

The power of the sword was understood, but the prevailing of the pen was an aspiration for Morrill. Morrill's family had lived in New England long before the Revolutionary War, so his family history is rooted in America culturally. His ancestor, Abraham Morrill, was the first to come to America from England in 1632 for religious freedom and undoubtedly more freedom in general. Abraham settled in Cambridge and built a house in an area that is now Harvard Square. Over subsequent generations, the Morrills dispersed to other states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and farther West. Without being too presumptuous, it's safe to say that Justin most likely grew up with the desire for freedom ringing in his mind because the involvement of the Morrill Family in defending freedom in this country is fairly well-documented, from the American Revolution onward.

Justin Morrill forfeited a life of leisure to be a public servant. As one of the wealthiest congressmen, he was known to reject bribes, yet he did not hesitate to enjoy his fortune openly. An attempt to peer deeper into his private life, however, is much more cryptic. No one today can truly know what kind of person he was, but historians have managed to capture a few defining moments. It is believed that there was a concern for Morrill's wife that was kept confidential. Despite the fact that there are few of Morrill's personal letters available, there is one noteworthy letter that seems to have been salvaged. In 1852, soon after Justin Morrill married Ruth Swan, she fell unconscious, had a dramatic seizure, and chewed her tongue. Morrill writes that this devastating discovery made his "heart bleed at every pore," calling it an "unseen dagger that would drive [them] from paradise"[iii]. Yet Morrill's devotion to his wife was unwavering: "I would travel bare-footed and in a hair-shirt to the ends of the earth to obtain [medicinal treatment]." Justin had two passions -- his wife and politics -- and both happily occupied most of his life. It is believed that they had a long and loving marriage. Justin died less than a year after his wife on December 28, 1898.

It was Morrill's love of life, the public, and education that inspired his policies. He was one of the few Vermonters to leave a legacy for citizens beyond his constituency as the founding father of land-grant colleges, saving institutions like MIT and Cornell University, and establishing universities in every state of the union. For a man who enjoyed his birthdays with no expense spared, and as the party in Washington, D.C., he might be thrilled to know that he is remembered centuries later in this city.

Monica, a relative of Justin Morrill, resides in Washington, D.C. and has two bachelor degrees from a land-grant college, the University of California at Berkeley. morrill@cal.berkeley.edu  

Photo credit: Library of Congress

[i] Hamilton, Alexander. (1787-1788) The Federalist Papers, Number 11: Union and Economic Growth. J. and A. M'lean, New York.

[ii] Telephone interview, 10 April 2010.

[iii] Justin Morrill's Private Letters at the University of Vermont cited in: Cross, Coy F. (1998) Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges, page 14. Michigan State University Press: East Lansing, MI
When most people discuss the Civil War, they often think of battlefields, cities on fire, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and a divided nation. Imagery evoked by the novel and movie Gone with the Wind may even come to mind. The life of Justin Morrill (1810-1898), a Northerner born two hundred years ago this week, tells a very different story, distinct from the grace and charm of the South. Both stories, however, leave a hallmark of struggles. Few people recall the battle scene in an equally important place -- the United States Congress.

Justin Morrill himself grew up in an average family in Vermont and received an average education, but with a tremendous motivation to know more. His self-education and local involvement in Vermont would serve him well later on as a Representative in Washington, D.C., yet it was his early practical learning through local financing and trade with Europe that would project him into the controversy of one of his first policies in 1860 -- the Morrill Tariff. Compared to the fully-fledged European protectionism at the time, the Morrill Tariff was fairly mild. In this policy, Morrill followed the same historical pathway as one of the founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton, who described Europe's defensive position in the Federalist Papers thus: "[T]he superiority ... has tempted her to plume herself as mistress of the world, and to consider the rest of mankind as created for her benefit"[i]. Centuries later, something resembling genuine free trade, what the founding fathers aimed for, would not begin to take place until the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) entered into force in 1948.

Surveying Morrill's public life, it's apparent that he had two competing attributes: patience and determination. In his political journals, he kept a detailed list of every registered voter in his district, which included his attendance of their social events, the things he did for them, how they were doing in various activities, and so on. Morrill's biographer, Coy Cross, called him "a master politician"[ii]. Morrill was his own pollster. He made it his business to know what his constituents wanted and needed.

But Morrill also knew what he himself wanted. His modest education constantly reminded him that he missed out on a higher education, and he hoped to change that opportunity for all Americans. During the darkest and most uncertain hours of the Civil War in 1862, Morrill made a second attempt to pass a bill, achieving a land-grant under the Lincoln administration to supply higher education in proportion to the number of representatives in each state. The Land-Grant Act is also known as the Morrill Act. Rejected initially by President Buchanan, Morrill already had a close political relationship with Abraham Lincoln that began during Lincoln's 1860 campaign. However, Lincoln needed to be persuaded with one major alteration to the Morrill Act during its second attempt. Colleges established by the land-grants also needed to provide training for future soldiers, otherwise known as R.O.T.C. This would later influence the G.I. Bill, perpetuating support for American higher education and research. Undoubtedly, if the North had lost the Civil War, the Morrill Act might have been challenged and rejected. Few people know and appreciate that it was the power of the sword that brought about the expansion of higher education to usher in the power of the pen.

The power of the sword was understood, but the prevailing of the pen was an aspiration for Morrill. Morrill's family had lived in New England long before the Revolutionary War, so his family history is rooted in America culturally. His ancestor, Abraham Morrill, was the first to come to America from England in 1632 for religious freedom and undoubtedly more freedom in general. Abraham settled in Cambridge and built a house in an area that is now Harvard Square. Over subsequent generations, the Morrills dispersed to other states: New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and farther West. Without being too presumptuous, it's safe to say that Justin most likely grew up with the desire for freedom ringing in his mind because the involvement of the Morrill Family in defending freedom in this country is fairly well-documented, from the American Revolution onward.

Justin Morrill forfeited a life of leisure to be a public servant. As one of the wealthiest congressmen, he was known to reject bribes, yet he did not hesitate to enjoy his fortune openly. An attempt to peer deeper into his private life, however, is much more cryptic. No one today can truly know what kind of person he was, but historians have managed to capture a few defining moments. It is believed that there was a concern for Morrill's wife that was kept confidential. Despite the fact that there are few of Morrill's personal letters available, there is one noteworthy letter that seems to have been salvaged. In 1852, soon after Justin Morrill married Ruth Swan, she fell unconscious, had a dramatic seizure, and chewed her tongue. Morrill writes that this devastating discovery made his "heart bleed at every pore," calling it an "unseen dagger that would drive [them] from paradise"[iii]. Yet Morrill's devotion to his wife was unwavering: "I would travel bare-footed and in a hair-shirt to the ends of the earth to obtain [medicinal treatment]." Justin had two passions -- his wife and politics -- and both happily occupied most of his life. It is believed that they had a long and loving marriage. Justin died less than a year after his wife on December 28, 1898.

It was Morrill's love of life, the public, and education that inspired his policies. He was one of the few Vermonters to leave a legacy for citizens beyond his constituency as the founding father of land-grant colleges, saving institutions like MIT and Cornell University, and establishing universities in every state of the union. For a man who enjoyed his birthdays with no expense spared, and as the party in Washington, D.C., he might be thrilled to know that he is remembered centuries later in this city.

Monica, a relative of Justin Morrill, resides in Washington, D.C. and has two bachelor degrees from a land-grant college, the University of California at Berkeley. morrill@cal.berkeley.edu  

Photo credit: Library of Congress

[i] Hamilton, Alexander. (1787-1788) The Federalist Papers, Number 11: Union and Economic Growth. J. and A. M'lean, New York.

[ii] Telephone interview, 10 April 2010.

[iii] Justin Morrill's Private Letters at the University of Vermont cited in: Cross, Coy F. (1998) Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges, page 14. Michigan State University Press: East Lansing, MI

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