American farmers can call up images from two very different historical threads when describing themselves.
Farmers are rugged individualists, pioneers who tackled the unfriendly frontier, rifle in one hand, guiding the plow with the other, spouse and children all pitching in to convert the hostile landscape into productive fields that now feed not only themselves but all Americans, abundantly, with plenty left over to feed others.
The other image is less sweaty or romantic. Farmers are skillful combiners of intelligence, good fortune, and hard work, better educated by far than their peers in other times and other places, blessed by access to inexpensive land, users of science, quick adopters of machines and other technology that increase the value of their labor and create a lifestyle that is interesting, profitable, rewarding, and something to be proud of. They are not peasants; they are solidly middle class.
This year, American farmers will observe the 150th anniversary of two key “pillars of public support” that continue to shape them and the industry they enjoy. There are four such foundation posts that underpin American agriculture, all developed in a 50-year period that began 150 years ago.
The four pillars—four acts of Congress—are the Homestead Act of 1862, the Morrill Act of 1862, the Hatch Act of 1887, and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.
Given the wrangling in Congress in recent years, it is worth observing that Congress can have moments of genius in which it creates seminal laws. Some of these laid the foundations for American agricultural excellence and made it a model for the world. Sure, American farmers pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but they enjoy enormous public support.
Two key acts
Two of these acts of Congress were passed in 1862, two months apart. One of them, the Morrill Act, passed Congress on July 2 and created the land-grant university system. It brought advanced education, and the resources associated with it, to farmers, making them increasingly well-educated and scientific in outlook and reducing the role of folklore and tradition in farming practice.
When amended to bring the land-grant philosophy to historically black universities (in 1890) and native Americans (in 1994), it created 106 American universities devoted to the advancement of agriculture and the mechanical arts—and to the elevation of the people who practice them.
The Homestead Act was signed two months earlier, on May 20, 1862, and had profound impact. That law opened up the West to settlement by ordinary people, giving all the land from the Great Lakes west virtually free to anybody who claimed 160 acres of it and physically worked to make it the family homestead.
That law broke the back of a long tradition in which people who had land were rulers or aristocrats favored by rulers. Landowners were kings and the nobles they gave land to. Most of those who actually farmed land were peasants or sharecroppers, or even worse, serfs bound to the land and its aristocratic owner. Even the original 13 American colonies were created by grants of land from kings to nobles and gentrymen.
The cause of the American yeoman farmer—the owner who worked his own land—was, if not an American invention, greatly advanced by the Homestead Act.
The Morrill Act
These two laws did not pass easily. Michigan State University, for example, is called the pioneer land-grant university because it preceded the Morrill Act by seven years. It was founded in 1855 by the state of Michigan with its own state grants of land, so MSU provided a model for what the federal Morrill Act did in 1862.
In an essay on the Morrill Land Grant Act, University of Illinois professor of law and history Dr. Daniel Hamilton wrote that Justin Morrill, a Whig who later turned Republican and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Vermont in 1855, “became one of the most outspoken advocates for the democratic ideal that a college education should be available, at low cost, to all who desired one.
“Morrill’s thinking was heavily influenced by Jonathan Turner of Illinois College, who had long argued for the establishment of state agricultural colleges through the use of federal land grants. Morrill proposed plans for land-grant colleges as early as 1857, and a plan of his passed the House in 1858. The bill faced opposition in the Senate from Southerners objecting to the increased federal role in dictating the course of higher education within the states. Morrill’s bill eventually passed the Senate in 1859 in the midst of an economic downturn. President James Buchanan, however, vetoed the bill for both constitutional and economic reasons.”
But during the Civil War, with states in the South having seceded from the Union, Congress had a different composition, and the laws passed. The antebellum South had a very traditional and conservative concept, the aristocratic concept, of how land should be owned and farmed.
“With a new president (Abraham Lincoln) and the departure of the Southern congressional delegations, Morrill (who was now a senator) was able during the first Civil War Congress to finally steer his bill to passage,” Hamilton wrote.
Under the new law, the federal government distributed land proportionately to the states, which then sold their “land grants” to raise money. “Each state was given 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative it had in the Congress,” Hamilton wrote.
Most of the land given to the states was not within their own confines but in the West, where the vast bulk of unsold federal land remained. Additionally, the most populous eastern states, such as New York and Pennsylvania, received a larger share of western land than the western states themselves. This provoked some opposition from western delegations in the Congress, but the simultaneous passage of the Homestead Act secured the support of enough western Republicans to pass the act on July 2, 1862. Although first applied in the Union states, after the Civil War, the Morrill Act’s provisions were extended to the former Confederate states.