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Morrill, Justin

Published onAug 06, 2021
Morrill, Justin

(April 14, 1810 – December 28, 1898)

Quick Facts

US Senator for whom the Morrill Act is named, establishing land grant colleges.

Justin Smith Morrill, together with Abraham Lincoln, Governor Samuel Kirkwood, and Peter Melendy take the credit for Iowa State becoming a land grant university. The Iowa legislature established the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm on March 22, 1858 and Ames was chosen as the site on June 21, 1859. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont proposed legislation titled, “An Act Donating Public Lands to Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts” which passed the Senate and the House of Representatives and was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.

In a special legislative session called by Governor Samuel Kirkwood in September 1862, primarily to address issues involving the Civil War, provisions of the Morrill Act were accepted by the Iowa legislature. Iowa was the first in the nation to do so. Governor Kirkwood appointed Peter Melendy to make the selections of available government land in northwest Iowa. The sale of about 200,000 acres of land provided funding for the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm (now Iowa State University). On March 17, 1869 Iowa State Agricultural College is opened for admission. The first class had 136 men and 36 women from 55 Iowa counties.

Morrill was born in Stafford, Vermont in 1815. He was educated in common, or public, schools until he ended his formal schooling at age 15. He became a storekeeper and built a successful retail business. He gained financial independence that allowed him to retire in his late 30s. He turned to politics and was elected as a Whig to Congress in 1854 as a Representative and as a Republican Senator in 1867.

His greatest achievement in his twelve years in the House of Representatives was the 1862 Land Grant College Act. That act dedicated revenues from the sale of 17 million acres of federal lands to establish colleges in every state and several territories.

He served six terms in the Senate and by the time of his death in 1898 he served 44 years. Serving as chairman of the Joint Committee on Public building, he nurtured legislation for construction of the west front terrace of the Capitol Building, the Executive Office Building and the unfinished portion of the Washington Monument. Morrill also had a hand in converting the old House chamber into a national statuary hall. One final construction project was the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress which was completed a year before his death.

President Gregory Geoffroy with the Morrill Act in Spring 2008, Christian Petersen Art Museum, Morrill Hall.

The original Morrill Act of 1862 was loaned by the National Archives to the University Museums in the spring of 2008 for a special ISU Sesquicentennial exhibition in the newly restored Morrill Hall within the newly opened Christian Petersen Art Museum.

Selected Sources

Morrill Act: Primary Documents of American History (Virtual Programs and Services, Library of Congress).

Morrill Act (1862) Our Documents, .

Justin Smith Morrill, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Justin S. Morrill, U.S. Senate, .

The Des Moines Register, “ISU to host document that led to its creation” Saturday, March 22, 2008.

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