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150 years ago, the Morrill Act created public higher education

As Americans prepare for Fourth of July festivities, celebrations on the National Mall and at universities across the country this week are marking the anniversary of another event that was pivotal to America’s future: passage of the legislation that created public higher education.

The Morrill Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862, created the so-called land-grant universities, donating land left over from the building of the Transcontinental Railroad to fund the creation of institutions of higher learning, charged with educating citizens from all walks of life and with advancing research into the cutting-edge fields of the day — agriculture and engineering.

The idea was revolutionary at the time, according to UC Berkeley wildlife and forestry professor Reginald Barrett, whose great-great grandfather, Jonathan Baldwin Turner, was the leader of the movement that launched the Morrill Act.

“He was absolutely convinced that our Constitution was the way to go, but he was very worried that unless the average person was educated and understood how to make decisions when it came to politics, it wasn’t going to work,” Barrett said.

To gain support for his vision of public higher education, Turner went from house to house on horseback, meeting with then-candidate Lincoln as well as Lincoln’s chief rival, Sen. Stephen Douglas.

The idea faced stiff opposition from private colleges and those who opposed non-sectarian education.

“He got a lot of flak. People burnt down his barn and harassed him, all kind of bad things,” said Barrett. “But he just kept pushing this idea that everyone who was willing and able should get a college education, and it was worth it to society to pay for it, because they would get it back in the long run.”

After a few failed attempts, the Morrill Act was signed into law, even as the Civil War raged and the new nation fought for its very survival.

Go to the UC Newsroom for the complete story by Academic Affairs Communications Coordinator Nicole Freeling, including an audio slideshow of historical images.

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