THE MORRILL LAND-GRANT ACT OF 1862 AND FOUNDATIONS
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY
By Marcus Brown, edited by Frank Stanger
Passage of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of July 1862 had major repercussions
as far as the future of public education in the United States was
concerned. For Kentucky and the other states of the South, despoiled
and devastated by the Civil War, the Morrill Act provided their
only chance at the time of establishing publicly funded nonsectarian
colleges. The culmination of a series of efforts by United States
Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the Act authorized the
federal government to provide each state with 30,000 acres of federal
land for each of its senators and representatives-to be used for
the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one public college
for the purpose of instruction in agricultural science and engineering.
Each state, in turn, was to set aside up to a million acres of the
land, which it could sell at $1.25 or less per acre. The proceeds
from the sale of this land might then earn additional income through
In January 1863, over significant local opposition from Confederate
partisans and religious and other private educational interests,
the Kentucky Legislature, on the recommendation of Unionist Governor
James F. Robinson, accepted the terms of the Act for the State.
The General Assembly promptly entrusted the management and sale
of the 330,000-acre land "scrip" which it received, to
a private financial firm-the Sinking Fund agency-with the intention
of assuring the best possible price for the land. Madison Johnson,
agent for the commissioners of the Sinking Fund, by inopportunely
marketing the land scrip in 1866, realized only about $164,000-less
than half the return which might have been anticipated a few years
earlier, when federal land in Kentucky was selling at $1.25 per
acre. The $9900 return on the investment of the principal proved
insufficient to allow for the growth of the new Agricultural and
Mechanical College and its fulfilling the stipulations of the Morrill
In 1865 John Bryan Bowman, Regent of Kentucky University, of which
the A&M College was a constituent department, with a donation
from the people of Lexington, purchased Henry Clay's Ashland and
J.B. Tilford's Woodlands estates, on which he sited his new Land-Grant
college. According to the terms of the Morrill Act, the Agricultural
and Mechanical College was to teach courses in both Agriculture
and Mechanical Arts (Engineering), and provide military instruction
as well. Scientific and classical studies might be included, but
these were never to exceed Agriculture and Engineering in size,
scope, and importance. Although Engineering instruction was well
established at the time, Agricultural Science was a relatively new
and undefined academic discipline, with little curricular or didactic
precedent, and teachers for the newly established School of Practical
Agriculture proved difficult to obtain. The meager income realized
from the investment of the proceeds from the sale of the land scrip
further exacerbated the difficulties encountered in supporting an
agricultural program at the College.
In 1868, in an attempt to demonstrate compliance with the Land-Grant
Act, the Ashland Mechanical Works, endowed by inventor G.W.N. Yost,
was set up within the College, to provide training for students
in the manufacture of the Yost Mower and other agricultural equipment.
The A&M College, however, functioned without a professor of Agriculture
and a viable program of agricultural instruction (admittedly, without
the support for these measures of Classics-trained Presiding Officer
James Kennedy Patterson), until 1881, when a special half-cent property
tax mandated by the General Assembly procured funds ($17,000) sufficient
to hire a professor of "Economic Botany, Agriculture and Horticulture"
(William Ashbrook Kellerman), facilitate the development of an agricultural
curriculum, and bring the College more nearly in line with the intent
of the Morrill Act. The resultant Agricultural Department, established
now in fact as well as in name, together with the Agricultural Experiment
Station which commenced operations in 1885, would evolve into the
University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture.
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The mission of the Special Collections Research Center is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic, and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Materials are acquired regardless of format and include both primary and secondary sources; Kentuckiana is collected comprehensively. Special Collections maintains a records management programfor all records generated by the University and serves as its archival repository for permanent records. As part of the mission, the Special Collections Research Center advances and supports the research, teaching, and scholarship of the University and beyond by preserving and providing access to its holdings.