The Morrill Land Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 were significant points in the history of public higher education in the United States. The first act provided for land which states could sell to raise funds for colleges in the agricultural and mechanical arts. The second act provided direct financial support to colleges. In Massachusetts, funds from the sale of Morrill lands provided the necessary resources for the founding of the Massachusetts Agricultural College.
The movements for the reform of higher education and the reform of agriculture merged in a creative fashion in the 1840s, centered on the idea of the agricultural college. Seeking on one hand to make collegiate education more responsive to the demands of antebellum life and, on the other hand, to promote modern scientific methods in agriculture, reformers in Massachusetts such as Marshall P. Wilder advocated for truly public education, bringing knowledge to the masses for the benefit of the nation. His address before the Norfolk Agricultural Society in 1849 was instrumental in generating support for an agricultural college in the Commonwealth, and he succeeded in prompting the state Senate to pass a bill to that effect, although the bill ultimately failed in the House.
In February 1853, influenced by the writing of another reformer, Jonathan Turner, the Illinois legislature became the first in the nation to petition the national government to fund a system of agricultural and industrial colleges. Picking up the torch, a Republican of Vermont, Justin Smith Morrill introduced a bill into Congress on Dec. 14, 1857, to provide the states with grants of 30,000 acres of federal land for each senator and congressman, with the intention that proceeds from the sale of that land would support the establishment of colleges for agricultural or mechanic arts. Overcoming stiff opposition from the southern states, Morrill's bill passed the Senate in 1859 before falling to a veto: James Buchanan arguing variously that the act was unconstitutional, too costly, that it would hamper the settlement of new territories and harm existing colleges, that it would result in little benefit, and would alienate the states against the national government.
Under the more favorable climate of a new administration and the stress of Civil War, Morrill reintroduced his legislation in 1861, adding a proviso that the colleges would be required to teach military tactics and engineering along with agriculture and mechanics. Without the seceded Southern states to object, the Morrill Land Grant Act passed easily and was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. During its history, the Act distributed 17,430,000 acres to the states, generating $7,545,405 for education.
With support from the federal government assured, the Massachusetts legislature acted quickly, claiming to be the first state to respond. With Wilder's active support, Gov. John A. Andrew presented a “great plan” to the legislature on Jan. 9, 1863 to establish a “university which would be worthy of the dream of her fathers, the history of the state, and the capacity of her people.” Andrew proposed adding an agricultural college to Harvard University, connected with the new Bussey Institute, but other parties had different ideas. William Rogers applied for support for his newly founded Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and both Amherst and Williams Colleges applied for support for their courses in agriculture. In short order, the debate came to revolve around two key questions: would the funds be used to support existing colleges or build a new one, and would the college be situated in the eastern part of state – with a greater population density , but greater costs as well – or the west, as advocated by William Smith Clark of Amherst College and Levi Stockbridge, a prominent advocate for scientific agriculture in Hadley.
To provide direction for use of the Morrill funds, the legislature created a committee of 14, one representative from each county in the state, headed by Sen. Erastus O. Haven, a former member of the faculty at the University of Michigan and expert in higher education. After two months of intensive work, Haven's Committee recommended establishing two new institutions: “Massachusetts demands an agricultural school… and she demands too, a school in the science of machinery…” [p.19], with the latter (MIT) located in Boston, but the former not necessarily so. The committee further recommended selling the Morrill lands quickly, given the weak state of the land market, and allocating ten percent to the purchase of land for the college and designating two thirds of the income from the remaining funds to the Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC). At this early stage, the committee envisioned campus and experimental farm to accommodate 150 students and a faculty of five, four in the sciences and one in literature and moral philosophy.
Adopting the Haven Committee's recommendations, the General Court accepted the Morrill Act on April 18, 1863, and ten days later, it approved the charter for the new college, which the Governor signed into law on the next day. The political wrangling, however, was not ended so easily. When the state received its share of the scrip for land, the College Trustees and legislature fell out with the Governor over whether to sell immediately, as the Haven Committee recommended, or delay in the hopes of earning a higher return. Although the Trustees, and immediate liquidation, emerged victorious, the sale nevertheless proceeded slowly. When finally completed in 1868, the sales had netted only $236,307.40, instead of $450,000 as planned, yielding only $29,778.40 for the purchase of land for the College and an endowment income of only $8,296.99 in the first year. In the face of such figures, perhaps, the General Court refused to allocate funds to construct buildings for four years, though it should be noted that while the proceeds were disappointing, only Vermont and Connecticut fared better among New England states.
Students began to arrive at the MAC campus in 1869, with the first graduates following in 1871. In 1887, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Morrill Act, Trustee Charles G. Davis wrote that the College was actively fulfilling the hopes of Wilder, Morrill, and Turner. MAC graduates were filling faculty positions in agriculture and having been “educated in the various branches of Agricultural and Mechanical Science,” he added, “thousands of young men… have gone forth to engage in the practical duties of life, and thus have disseminated and multiplied the knowledge they have received.”
On Aug. 30, 1890, Congress passed a second Morrill Act (the Agricultural College Act of 1890: 26 Stat 417, 7 U.S.C. §321) to advance education in the former Confederate states and new territories, requiring those states either to admit students regardless of race or to establish separate land-grant schools for persons of color. This act differed from its predecessor in granting cash instead of land, but through its provisions, it funded sixteen Black land-grant colleges in the southern states. At MAC, funds from the act arrived at a critical time, more than doubling the support received from the Morrill Act of 1862 and helping the College to shore up its finances after a tough decade. As a result of the increased support, President Henry H. Goodell was able to add five new members of the faculty and expand the curriculum.
Congress has returned to the land grant model repeatedly over the years, offering grants (usually in cash) to establish sea grant colleges (1966), urban grant colleges (1985), space grant colleges (1988), and sun grant colleges (2003). Beginning in 1887, Congress also began funding experiment stations for agricultural or veterinary research, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 provided funding for cooperative extension service, authorizing the land grant colleges to send extension agents to every county in the state.
 Wilder, Marshall P., Address Delivered Before the Norfolk Agricultural Society, on the Occasion of its First Annual Exhibition, at Dedham (Boston: The Society, 1849); Charles G. Davis, “Historical Address” in Addresses Delivered at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, June 21st, 1887, on the 25th Anniversary of the Passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act (Amherst, Mass: J.E. Williams, 1887)