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Kirkwood, Samuel Jordan

Published onJul 30, 2021
Kirkwood, Samuel Jordan

(December 20, 1813 - September 1, 1894)

Quick Facts

Governor Kirkwood put the Morrill Act of 1862 into the Iowa legislature’s agenda, directly contributing to the creation of a land grant university in Iowa.

Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Iowa State owes its status as a Land Grant University to Samuel Jordan Kirkwood. The Morrill Act, proposed by Vermont Congressman Justin Smith Morrill, was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. In a special session of the Iowa legislature in September 1862, Governor Kirkwood added the acceptance of the terms of the Morrill Act to the agenda. Amid issues such as raising Northern and Southern Border Brigades and funding Iowa’s volunteer regiments to the Civil War effort, Iowa set aside 203,309 acres of unclaimed federal land in the state which when sold, would create a fund for an agricultural college.

Those acres set aside are scattered through about 27 counties in Iowa including large areas of Kossuth, Palo Alto, Clay and Emmet counties.[1][2] Before the Morrill Act, higher education in the United States tended to be reserved for the children of the wealthy or those headed to the military. Land Grant colleges focused on agriculture and mechanical arts and were open to all men and women regardless of income. Students had to be at least fourteen years old, speak English, have mastered certain type of arithmetic, be of good character and standing, and tuition shall be free. Obviously, some entrance requirements changed over time.

Kirkwood was born on a farm in Maryland and attended country school until he was 10. He was enrolled in a private academy in Washington, D.C., for four years until the death of his mother. He returned to help with the family and clerked at his brother’s drug store and taught school for a time in Pennsylvania. The family moved to Ohio in 1835 and he again taught school until 1841 when he began studying law and was admitted to the bar in 1843. He married Jane Clark in the fall of 1843 and practiced law for the next twelve years. He and his wife moved to Iowa City, Iowa, in 1855 where he joined his brother-in-law, Ezekiel Clark, in a business partnership which owned a flour and grist mill, a saw mill, and a general store.

Originally a Democrat, Kirkwood was drawn to the Republican Party which positioned itself as an opponent to slavery expansion. He became a force in Johnson County politics and was elected state senator in 1856. In 1859 he was nominated for governor and defeated Augustus Caesar Dodge by a 3,000 vote majority. While his first year in office was peaceful, the outbreak of the Civil War change his life and life in Iowa. An avid supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Kirkwood answered Lincoln’s call for ten regiments of volunteers to preserve the union. Using his influence with bankers and by direct assistance of Washington, Kirkwood armed and equipped 20,000 Iowa soldiers. He was re-elected for a second two-year term in 1862.

When Senator James Harlan of Mount Pleasant was named to the cabinet of President Andrew Johnson in 1865, Kirkwood was appointed to complete his term and then returned to his business. In 1875 he was nominated again for the office of governor and won the election with a 31,000 vote majority. His term was shorted as he was elected for a full term in the U.S. Senate. He completed his public service by taking an appointment in the Garfield cabinet as Secretary of the Interior in 1881. He resigned following Garfield’s assassination, but President Arthur kept him in office until the spring of 1882.

Kirkwood returned to private life in Iowa City where he died at the age of 80.

Selected Sources

Cook, Robert J. “Kirkwood, Samuel Jordan” The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 13 July 2017

Schwieder, Dorothy and Van Houten, Gretchen, editors Tradition and Transformation: A Sesquicentennial History of Iowa State University. Iowa State University Press 2007

Ross, Earl D. A History of Iowa State College. The Iowa State College Press, 1942

“ISU to host document that led to its creation” The Des Moines Register, Tuesday April 1, 2006. “Samuel J. Kirkwood, Civil War Governor” The Des Moines Register, Monday, January 15, 1934.

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