Some of our fellow military colleges like Texas A&M and Virginia Tech owe their existence to the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, which gave public land for the establishment of colleges focused on practical education. The author of that legislation, Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, lived just up the road from our own Captain Alden Partridge, who very well may have planted the seed of practical education in Morrill’s mind.
The landmark Morrill Land-Grant Act created a national system of agricultural and technical colleges. Morrill would recall years later that the idea of founding colleges based on land grants had occurred to him no earlier than 1856, and that he alone conceived and formulated the measure. But the roots of the 1862 legislation reach well back into the nineteenth century.
Though Morrill never acknowledged Partridge’s influence, the close correspondence in their thinking is remarkable and in all probability was not accidental. In the spring of 1835, Partridge outlined a bold new plan for higher education in a lecture at Charlottesville, Virginia. He proposed that Congress establish a “system of national education” (modeled, one imagines, on Partridge’s “American System” of literary, scientific, and military education) and grant each state public land on which to build a college.
The most highly developed version of Alden Partridge’s plan was presented in a petition to both houses of Congress in January of 1841. The plan requested land grants to support institutions, new or remodeled, that would offer a curriculum embracing both theoretical and practical learning. In effect, Partridge proposed an extension, on a national scale, of the system of education already in operation at Norwich University.
Alden Partridge’s proposal for land grants to support colleges offering both liberal and practical learning was too bold a scheme, it seems, to attract significant support in Congress in 1841. Neither house of Congress moved to adopt either of Alden Partridge’s proposals.
By the late 1850s, however, interest in science and vocational education produced a climate that was favorable for positive legislative action. In 1862, six years after Partridge’s death, Congress enacted Morrill’s legislation that supported higher education by means of land grants. Partridge’s concept of a perpetual endowment and his scheme for land distribution were incorporated into Morrill’s measure—as was the requirement that the land-grant colleges focus on “agricultural and mechanical” subjects, echoing Partridge’s lifelong crusade for practical education.
Morrill never did explain how he formulated the plans for the legislation that bears his name. Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that he was acquainted with Partridge’s “American system of education” and the curriculum at Norwich University well before 1856, when he claimed to have come up with his idea.
Ironically, Norwich University repeatedly rejected opportunities to become a land-grant college in the 1860s and 1870s, despite offering a curriculum similar to the one prescribed by the Morrill Act. Perhaps the Board of Trustees resisted out of fear of losing Norwich’s core identity as a military college.
While Justin Morrill deserves credit for his legislative success, the conceptual foundation for the land-grant legislation was laid over a long period of time and it was started well before 1856. Some of the earliest and most substantial elements of that foundation were set in place by Alden Partridge.
Adapted from an article by Professor Emeritus Gary T. Lord that appeared in the Winter/Spring 2000 edition of the Norwich Record.