Amidst the outbreak of the Civil War, Congress passed one of the most influential pieces of American legislation: the Land-Grant College Act of 1862. Also known as the Morrill Act—named after its sponsor, Justin Smith Morrill, a Vermont congressman—it reserved up to 30,000 acres of public land in each state for agricultural and mechanical colleges. The act led to the founding of 69 universities across the country, including 2,416 acres in Brazos County that later became Texas A&M.
Morrill’s lack of access to higher education motivated him to write legislation to provide educational opportunities for the public, allowing the nation to grow and prosper.
Praised today for its expansion of education access, the Morrill Act created a political divide. At the time, the Republican Party believed the government should intervene to enhance the economy by increasing the number of educated citizens, while Democrats believed in limited government involvement. As states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy, many Democratic votes were lost, allowing the act to pass under President Abraham Lincoln.
As a member of the Confederacy, Texas couldn’t utilize the Morrill Act until rejoining the Union in 1865. Matthew Gaines, the first Black Texas state senator, was instrumental in enabling the state to act. Gaines advocated for the college despite knowing he could not attend due to segregation laws. Born into slavery, he understood that public education for all was vital to a developing country.
Since its passage, the Morrill Act has allowed for groundbreaking research, improving the quality of life worldwide. Thanks to the foresight of Morrill, Gaines and others who valued education, more than 500,000 Aggies have had the opportunity to learn and fulfill the land-grant university mission.