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The Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and the 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 further investment.

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 Act.

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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