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This Week in History

July 1-7, 1862:
President Lincoln Signs the Morrill College Land Grant Act

July 2012

Abraham Lincoln.

On July 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Land Grant Act passed by Congress in June to provide funding for higher education. The bill was also known as the Morrill Act, named after its sponsor, Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont. The measure gave every state, including those of the South whenever they would reenter the Union, 30,000 acres of public land for each of its Congressional representatives. Thus, the land would be distributed according to population density.

The proceeds which would go to each state from selling the land were earmarked for the foundation and maintenance of state colleges, "where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts."

The Morrill Act was not an isolated piece of legislation, but an integral part of a legislative package designed to reestablish the American System of Political Economy. What the situation had been in America before the election of Abraham Lincoln is illustrated by what happened when the Morrill Act, originally granting only 20,000 acres, was first introduced in 1857. It was vetoed by the treasonous President James Buchanan, who had demonstrated his economic ideology in an 1840 speech made during the terrible depression which had resulted from British manipulation of gold prices. Buchanan suggested that in order to preserve a low tariff on imported goods, especially those from Britain, American wages should be adjusted downward to correspond to those in Europe. For this bald-faced support of British free-trade policy and starvation wages, he earned the appropriate nickname "Ten Cent Jimmy."

Justin Smith Morrill.

Because of the destruction of America's National Bank, and the series of traitorous Presidents ending with Buchanan, the Union found itself virtually bankrupt at the start of the Civil War. But predatory banking houses such as the Associated Banks of New England and New York, and their allies, the Rothschild and Baring banking houses of Europe, were most eager to buy United States securities. Like the International Monetary Fund today, they were pleased to dictate destructive terms for the use of their ill-gotten funds. And they did, indeed, lay out such terms to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase and a group of Congressmen. The terms dictated that the U.S. government would adopt a policy of stringent taxation, allow the banks to sell U.S. securities below par on the London markets, suspend the "Sub-Treasury Law" which gave the government regulatory power over the banks, and halt the issuance of government legal tender. In other words, to surrender American sovereignty.

Fortunately, the American System faction of the Republican Party, through a vigorous campaign launched well before the Republican National Convention of 1860, had succeeded in committing the party to a program of internal improvements and to a protectionist tariff policy. In the fall of 1861, Justin Morrill met with Treasury Secretary Chase to work on a tariff structure that would protect American industry and agriculture. Secretary Chase's report to Congress proposed a Hamiltonian policy for America.

Then, on Dec. 3, 1861, President Lincoln addressed Congress and proposed the new Morrill Tariff plan, and the issuance of a currency that was internal to the U.S. and backed by the government's commitment to a policy of rapid industrial expansion. Instead of issuing U.S. bonds to be sold on the London Markets, the government sold them to U.S. banks and owners of U.S. industries. Lincoln also advanced a peace-winning program to industrialize the South, such as a north-south railroad, to begin immediately in Union-controlled territory, thus providing a basis for the South to recover once the war was ended. Economist Henry Carey, who worked with Justin Morrill and advised President Lincoln, wrote that "Lincoln had 'wed' the nation's treasury to the producers of wealth."

Most relevant to the passage of the Land Grant Act was Lincoln's discussion, in his report to Congress, of labor's priority over capital. He asked for the attention of Congress to "the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by use of it, induces him to labor.... [However,] labor is prior to, and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

And, so, once the protective Morrill Tariff was passed in March of 1862, the Homestead Act in May, and measures banning slavery in the District of Columbia and in the Western territories passed the Congress in June, the College Land Grant Act came up for a vote. A few western Republicans opposed it, but there was immense popular sentiment in favor of state colleges which would teach scientific agriculture, mechanics, military arts, and the other arts and sciences. Newspapers, ministers, farm organizations, and many presidents of private colleges fought for the bill. Some state legislators instructed their Senators to vote for it. When it came to a vote, many Representatives broke party lines to vote for the bill. The Senate approved it 32 to 7, and the House voted for it 90 to 25. Wrote Justin Morrill later, "To many Democratic leaders of Congress, and more outside, I am much indebted for kindly sympathy and cooperation."

What the bill's sponsors had envisioned did come to pass—thousands of doctors, engineers, and scientific farmers were trained and contributed to developing the nation. Some of the legislators who had provided the overwhelming majority for the bill lived to see the new universities built in New York, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and many more states. As Lincoln said in his 1861 address to Congress, "There are already among us those, who, if the Union be preserved, will live to see it contain two hundred and fifty millions. The struggle of today, is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also." 


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.

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