By Gary Lord
The landmark legislation passed by the United States Congress in 1862 supporting a national system of agricultural and technical colleges is commonly known as the Morrill Land-Grant Act. Vermont congressman Justin Smith Morrill prepared the bill, and its successful passage was in large measure the result of his persistence and political acumen. The legislation would eventually be widely acclaimed for the transforming influence it had upon higher education.
Morrill would recollect 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. Nevertheless, it is apparent that the roots of the 1862 legislation reach well back into the nineteenth century and that many reformers interested in education helped to prepare the way for Justin Morrill’s inspiration.
Historians have given little attention to another Vermonter who was actually the first to offer Congress a comprehensive plan for land-grant colleges: Alden Partridge. Though Morrill never acknowledged Partridge’s influence, the close correspondence in their thinking is remarkable and in all probability was not accidental. The Land-Grant Act of 1862 bears a strange resemblance to the detailed proposal Partridge advanced to Congress in 1841.
Partridge’s plan was “the first definite proposal made to Congress to provide large-scale aid to each state for new education.” Though he presented it to Congress in 1841, he gave lectures about a similar plan as early as 1835. The plan requested land grants to support state institutions, new or remodeled, that would offer a curriculum embracing practical learning alongside traditional academics—in effect, a national extension of the curriculum already in operation at Norwich University.
Neither house of Congress moved to adopt Alden Partridge’s 1841 proposal. By the late 1850s, however, interest in science and vocational education produced a climate that was favorable for positive legislative action. While Justin Morrill deserves credit for his legislative success, some of the earliest and most substantial elements of the act’s conceptual foundation were set in place by Alden Partridge.
The Morrill Act was similar to Partridge’s plan in both general and specific ways, down to the scheme for the distribution of the land. Some evidence strongly suggests that Morrill, well before 1856, was acquainted with Partridge’s proposed national curriculum and the operation of that curriculum at Norwich University.
It is no small irony that Norwich University subsequently rejected multiple opportunities to become a land-grant college in the 1860s and 1870s. Moreover, it is perplexing that Justin Morrill could not, or would not, explain how he formulated the plans for the 1862 legislation that bears his name. Though the details remain a mystery, there can be no question that Alden Partridge and his curriculum at Norwich University were decades ahead of the curve when it came to a national system of practical education.
Adapted from an article by Gary Lord appearing in the Winter/Spring 2000 edition of the Norwich Record. A longer version originally appeared in The History of Higher Education Annual (1998).