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Black and White Image of Justin Smith MorrillJustin Smith Morrill (April 14, 1810 – Dec. 28, 1898) was a politician, legislator and businessman. He was born in Stafford, Vt. His father, a blacksmith, could not afford college for his sons. Morrill attended public school until his early teens when he became a clerk in the local general store. After four years he moved to Portland, Maine, working as a bookkeeper in a dry goods store. He returned to Stafford in 1834 and partnered with a local merchant. Fifteen years later, Morrill was financially able to leave his work in retail and retire to a farm.

Through his success as a businessman, he was recognized as a leading citizen, allowing him to become active in local and state politics. Morrill became a member of the Whig party. He repeatedly refused offers to be an elected official but in 1854 accepted the Whig nomination for Congress. He won that election and began a 44-year career, first as a representative and later as a senator. With the collapse of the Whig party in 1855, Morrill became a founder of the Republican Party in Vermont. As a politician, he was known for his practical and commonsense approach to legislation. He was a moderate and an abolitionist.

Unable to afford college himself, Morrill was an advocate for higher education. Concerned that there were no schools of agriculture in the U.S. as in Europe, and only a few that taught mechanical engineering, Morrill championed using public land and a fund that all states could share to teach these subjects. In July of 1862 the Morrill Land Grant Act, the only legislation bearing his name, passed Congress and was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. As a result, 105 institutions of higher education eventually were funded to provide education for America’s working class in agriculture, business, engineering, mechanics and home economics. To ensure more federal funding for land grant schools, he then introduced legislation guaranteeing annual federal monies for these colleges.

Michigan State University was founded in 1855, and, with the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, became the nation’s first land grant college and a prototype for 69 subsequent land grant universities. Originally the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, it was among the first U.S. colleges to teach a scientific approach to agriculture. Following passage of the Morrill Act, it became a coeducational college and broadened studies in agriculture and other areas. Today, MSU is the 8th largest university in the country based on enrollment.

After one of the longest and most productive careers in Congress, Morrill died on Dec. 28, 1898, in Washington, DC.

Andrews, William G. (1999). “Morrill, Justin Smith.” In: John A. Garraty & Mark C. Carnes (Eds.), American national biography, Vol. 15, pp 882-884. New York: Oxford University Press.

Byers, Paula Kay & Bourgoin, Suzanne Michele (Eds.) (1997). Encyclopedia of World Biography. Vol. 11. 2nd ed., pp 182. Detroit: Gale, 2004. p182.

Photo: Hon. J.S. Morrill. Source: Mathew Brady - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. LC-BH82- 4787