A recent issue of Time magazine was devoted to “Reinventing College.” Several full-page public-service ads celebrated “Milestones in the History of U.S. Higher Education.” The first ad had “1862” emblazoned across the top, accompanied by a photograph of President Abraham Lincoln.

Why the fuss about 1862? Because the 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act, signed by Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, created many of America’s leading public universities. The law’s purpose was to democratize higher education. At the time few Americans attended college, and most who did came from families of means.

In honor of the Morrill Act’s transforming impact on American education, its sesquicentennial is being celebrated this year on many American campuses. My own institution, the University of Maine, recently raised banners in its honor.

The law was named for Justin Morrill, a member of the House of Representatives (and later Senate) from Vermont whose earlier bill had been passed by Congress in 1859 but vetoed by President James Buchanan. Once in place, the act gave each eligible state–any that had not left the Union to form the Confederacy–30,000 acres of federal land to sell for the funds needed to establish new public colleges.

The first school created was Kansas State Agricultural College in 1863. Nearly all of the original “land-grants” were called “colleges” rather than “universities” because of their modest size and scope. Besides what became Kansas State University, the University of Maine, for example, was originally called the Maine College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts. The oldest school to hold land-grant status is Rutgers University, which was created in 1766 and was designated as New Jersey’s land-grant college in 1864. Among the most prominent other land-grants are Penn State University, Iowa State University, University of California at Berkeley, and, not widely known as such, the partially private Cornell University and the wholly private Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Public universities had existed well before 1862. Set up by states, they included the University of Georgia, the first to be chartered in 1785, and the University of North Carolina (1789), the first to graduate students in 1798. But these pre-1862 public institutions were vastly outnumbered by the scores of small colleges that typically were established and populated by religious denominations.

In 1890 a second Morrill Act extended the offer to the former Confederate states, but with cash instead of land. That was not a problem. What was a problem was the requirement that each state demonstrate that race was not an admissions factor. Because 1890 was the peak of the South’s post-Civil War Jim Crow segregation, a substitute provision required that separate land-grant state universities be established for non-white students.

From that provision, albeit with vastly inferior funding and facilities for non-white schools, came several of America’s so-called “historically black” institutions. These include Alabama A&M University (1875), Florida A&M University (1887), Jackson (Mississippi) State University (1877), Kentucky State University (1886), Savannah (Georgia) State University (1890), and Southern (Louisiana) University (1881).

It is commonly assumed that those 30,000 acres of federal land provided to establish the original land-grant colleges would have been sold as soon as possible, similar to the sale of public school sections in the Northwest Territory. This did usually occur in eastern states like Maine that lacked large tracts of public land and so were given lands out West to sell. By 1868, all of Maine’s allocated land had been sold. But some Western states with huge public lands did not need to sell their share so quickly, if at all.

It is also commonly assumed that all land-grant colleges were created as advanced vocational schools. Yet though they were indeed established to offer practical courses, they were never meant to exclude the liberal arts, not even Greek and Latin. Within the practical offerings in agriculture and engineering, cutting-edge scientific and technical research was expected. Some educational and political leaders, seeking combinations of abstract with applied knowledge, envisioned farmers using the newest horticultural science to improve their crops as they simultaneously recited classical verses while tilling their lands!

The Morrill Act, then, was hardly an indictment of the liberal arts.

Today the growing number of public officials who demand primarily “job-creating” courses for higher education and the elimination of “irrelevant” majors love invoking the Morrill Act as precedent. In so doing, they instead remind us of historian Richard Hofstadter’s indictment of “anti-intellectualism in American life,” a phrase that serves as the title of one of his most important books. In fact, Morrill and his fellow legislators understood that American public higher education would require long-term, qualitative measures of success, ones not reducible to the bottom-line quarterly corporate reports that contemporary educational critics often relish.

How wonderful it would be if this year’s sesquicentennial commemorations of the Morrill Act correctly honored the actual intent of the act.

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Howard P. Segal is Bird and Bird Professor of History at the University of Maine. His new book is “Utopias: A Brief History from Ancient Writings to Cyberspace Communities” (2012). A version of this essay appeared in the London-based magazine Times Higher Education.