October 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT1

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Justin S. Morrill--Father of the Land-Grant Colleges: A Book Review

Coy F. Cross's biography, Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges, is a short but informative look at the life and many accomplishments of its subject. Although the author's style is sometimes disconnected, the book would make a valuable addition to any library on Extension. It is particularly valuable for its recounting of Morrill's persistent efforts to establish the Land-Grant System in the face of vehement opposition, but the book also covers other facets of his long and distinguished career.

Kirk A. Astroth
Extension Specialist, 4-H
Montana State University
Bozeman, Montana
Internet address: kastroth@montana.edu

To those in Extension, the name of Justin Morrill is held in as much veneration as that of Seaman Knapp. While the USDA building in Washington, D.C. has the Seaman A. Knapp Arch, numerous Land Grant Universities have buildings named after Morrill, who, as many recall, was the driving force behind both the 1862 and 1890 legislation creating the Land Grant Universities in every state. His legacy continues to be felt with the 1994 additions of tribal colleges to the Land Grant System.

Coy F. Cross provides the only recent biography of Morrill, Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. Cross comes to the task in an interesting way, as a professional historian with the Air Force. Yet, when you recall that Land-Grant Colleges were also instrumental in providing training for our military through ROTC programs, his attraction to his topic is understandable.

Perhaps it's more than coincidence that Cross's biography comes out at a time when so many parallels can be made between Morrill's time and our own. In fact, after reading his book, one might conclude that Morrill could be a man of our times rather than an historical figure from the 19th century.

Morrill was a staunch Republican. A fiscal conservative, he opposed large government surpluses and over-taxation; opposed Congressional pay raises, actually giving back his raise to the Vermont treasury; voted for a guilty verdict at the impeachment trial of a President (Johnson, not Clinton); and championed the needs of his rural constituency.

But in other ways, Morrill was clearly a man of his own unique times. He opposed women's suffrage, opposed the direct election of senators and the President, opposed the 8-hour work day, and supported a movement to incorporate Canada into the United States (making NAFTA pale by comparison).

Morrill, however, is best remembered for his efforts to provide federally supported education to the common people and to ensure that emancipated slaves would have access to the same educational opportunities as others.

A biography of Morrill is long overdue. The only previous biography, published in 1924 by William B. Parker, has been long out of print, and many college students today have no idea how much they owe to this man from Vermont.

Cross's subtitle, "Father of the Land-Grant Colleges," belies the full content of his book. The biographer covers Morrill's entire life, including his efforts to beautify Washington, D.C. after the ravages of the Civil War and Reconstruction. What surprised this reader was that Morrill lost many more legislative battles than he won, but that his determination and perseverance enabled him to win his way in the end. "Dogged determination" would be an apt descriptor of Morrill. At the same time, he was polite, often serving as a mediator between conflicting parties and seeking to find common ground whenever possible.

Cross helps us understand that, while considered the greatest education legislation in U.S. history, passage of Morrill's College Land Bill was far from certain and deeply controversial. During congressional debate in 1859, James Mason of Virginia labeled the bill "one of the most extraordinary engines of mischief," a misuse of federal property, and "an unconstitutional robbing of the Treasury for the purpose of bribing the States." Ohio Congressman George Pugh said the bill involved "as atrocious a violation of the organic law as if it were the act of an armed usurper."

In hindsight, it's hard to believe that such a far-thinking, visionary, and beneficial legislative proposal could have engendered such bitter opposition. There was wide support among voters for the bill, but Southern states were vehemently opposed to Morrill's bill. President Buchanan finally vetoed it at the urging of Democratic senators led by John Slidell of Louisiana. With this veto, the bill was effectively dead until after the 1860 election.

With the election of Lincoln, prospects for passage improved, although pressing civil war matters took precedence. Morrill introduced the bill in December 1860, but opposition in the House, this time from Western states, delayed consideration for 6 months. Meanwhile, friends in the Senate moved a version of the bill through and won approval, even though Kansas and Minnesota opposed the "college land bill" as a dangerous giveaway to land speculators. After several attempts to delay and amend the bill in the House, it finally passed, and President Lincoln signed it into law on July 2, 1862.

Morrill's land-grant bill, tariff bills to help finance the civil war, tariff bills to protect American industries and agriculture, and other legislation elevated him to a unique position in 19th century politics. Morrill should also be remembered for his contributions to remaking Washington, D.C. during the period of reconstruction. After spending so much time in the capital city, Morrill became chair of the Buildings and Grounds Committee and became a passionate advocate for improving the city's landscape and architecture.

Cross's biography of Morrill helps the reader appreciate the contributions made by this simple man from Vermont who himself never was able to attend college. The record of Morrill's achievements are long and extraordinary, and testify to his determination to get things done, even when opposed by stronger interests.

It is unfortunate, given the importance of his subject and interesting nature of his material, that Cross's writing style is sometimes disconnected and that time periods are awkwardly combined, often losing the reader in the rearranged flow of events. Nonetheless, for those in Extension, this short and informative biography would be a valuable addition to their permanent libraries--especially at a Land-Grant University.


Cross, C.F. (1999). Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. 159 pp.