Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges

Justin Smith Morrill: Father of the Land-Grant Colleges

by Coy Cross

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Smith Morrill: Almost every land-grant college or university in the United States has a building named for him; but are his contributions truly recognized and understood? Here is the first biography on this renowned statesman in six decades.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870139055
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 1 MB

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Justin Smith Morrill

Father of the Land-Grant Colleges

By Coy F. Cross II

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1999 Coy F. Cross II
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87013-905-5



Anyone can be a Vermonter—anyone who subscribes to a doctrine of frugality, self-reliance, and humility, who takes up residence in the hills and pays his poll tax—but to be a good Vermonter, native or immigrant, he has to have an eccentricity; somewhere in his background there is a gentle madness, a persistent fanaticism, an honest idiosyncrasy.

Justin Smith Morrill was both typical and atypical of Vermont's citizens in the nineteenth century. He was a Vermont blacksmith's son, but his tastes were those of the English gentry. He could not afford college, but through reading and studying he became a well-educated man and earned several honorary degrees. He opposed women's suffrage, the eight-hour workday, and direct election of the president and senators, but he supported college education for the masses, including women and blacks. His career began as a store clerk, but he retired a relatively wealthy n an at age 38. Then, after retirement, he began a political career that lasted forty-three years. Clearly, he was a complex man, who did not fit into a rigidly defined niche.

Although Morrill had a house in Washington, his home and his roots were in Vermont. And those roots were deep. Abraham Morrill, Justin's great, great, great-grandfather, arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts, from England in 1632, just 12 years after the Mayflower landed at Plymouth. By 1780, when Justin's father Nathaniel was born, the family had moved a short distance to Chichester, New Hampshire. In 1795 Grandfather Smith Morrill, his wife Mary, five sons and two daughters joined the migration stimulated by Vermont's admission to statehood four years earlier.

One historian defined those migrating to Vermont as settlers seeking to establish "self-sustaining homes in a congenial environment." They were neither fleeing religious persecution, coming as conquerors, nor acting as agents for a large company. "They wanted only the freedom of a virgin land." The new state was still largely wilderness with barely 85,000 people. The immigrants would help shape Vermont, but Vermont would help mold them, too. As historian Lee Storrs said, "The hardy farm life, rock-strewn hillsides, the rough winters and rough roads, the tense conservatism, the domination of the one-room school and the village church, all had something to do with the character-making of the men of the mountains." Justin Morrill described Strafford's early settlers as "possessing a large share of brain power, plenty of muscle, and they lived long, unfolding wit and wisdom and much originality of character."

Strafford must have attracted the Morrill family. Smith, Mary and their family stopped in South Strafford (Lower Village then), on the West Branch of the Ompompanoosuc River. Sons David and Daniel stayed there, while Nathaniel, Stephen, Joseph, and their parents and sisters moved two and one-half miles farther to Strafford (Upper Village then) a short time later. Smith and his sons soon had a thriving blacksmith business with shops in both the villages. Using the mountain stream for power, the Morrills added trip-hammers to both shops and made axes, hoes and scythes for the local farmers.

The Morrills prospered in Strafford and, in 1806, Nathaniel married Mary Hunt, "a woman of superior character and education." A neighbor described Mary as an admirable woman with above average intelligence and culture. He also commented on her "ladylike manners" and "excellent wifely and motherly qualities." She was, according to the neighbor, "an excellent female citizen." One of her sons remembered her good humor and calm disposition. He also recalled her kindness, an attribute he believed his brother Justin had inherited.

Nathaniel and Mary had ten children, but only five lived to adult-hood. Caroline B., the oldest, died at 15. Justin later reminisced about her "large and lovely brown eyes and her constant care" for him and dedicated a poem entitled "An imperfect token of remembrance of my dear departed sister." Justin Smith, born 14 April 1810, came next. His mother apparently named him for Justin Smith, a "learned and capable physician." Twins, Sidney Smith and Edna M., arrived five years later. Sidney became a Fulton, New York, jeweler. Edna married Dr. Ephraim Carpenter and moved to Troy, New York. Sidney and Edna lived to be among the oldest twins in the United States. She died at 91 and he at 96. Nathaniel Batchelder, born in 1818, lived only seven years. Amos, born two years later, spent his life in Strafford and carried on the family tradition as the village blacksmith. In 1825, a second Caroline was born, but she lived less than a year. Wilbur Fisk, born in 1826, became a dentist in New Albany, Indiana. The last of Nathaniel and Mary's children were a second set of twins that apparently died at birth and remained unnamed. The early death of so many of their children must have affected Justin's parents and his entire family.

When Justin arrived on 14 April 1810, the United States, barely 21 years old, had 25 states and 7,239,881 people. James Madison was president. George Washington had been dead for eleven years. Abraham Lincoln, who would sign Morrill's Land-Grant College Act, was still in his cradle. Franklin Pierce, who was president when Morrill went to Congress, was six. William McKinley, the last president Morrill served under, would not be born for another 33 years. Vermont had 217,000 people. Jonas Galusha was governor, and Montpelier had been the state capital for only two years. Strafford, a small village surrounded by rolling hills and small farms, consisted of the blacksmith shop, two stores, a tavern, a lawyer's office, a doctor's office, a meeting house and about twenty homes. In a poem, Justin described his "Native Village" as a lovely spot with a steepled church, green hills, a pond and a mill. He loved Strafford where "even the stars, the planets, and the moon seem to shine more brightly than elsewhere." On returning from Europe in 1867, he expressed his thanks to God for permitting him to be born in America, "and in New England rather than in any other part, and in Vermont rather than even in any other State in New England."

In 1814, when Justin was but four, his father and three uncles joined Captain Jedediah H. Harris' light infantry company at Burlington, Vermont, ready to defend Plattsburgh, New York, against the British army. Grandfather Smith Morrill, though sixty-five and lame, also traveled to Burlington to fight the British. When told he could tend the horses, but could not join the battle, Smith cried from disappointment. Captain Harris' company soon learned that other volunteers had already repelled the invaders. Still seeking their moment of glory, Strafford's heroes joined the pursuit of the fleeing British. As a reward for his bravery, Nathaniel became a regimental commander in the state militia. His friends dubbed him "Colonel Nat," a title he wore proudly for the rest of his life. Justin considered his father "the most truly honest man I ever knew." The son always strove to warrant the same praise-worthy epithet.

Justin grew up in a two-storied, white house with green-shuttered windows that reflected his father's status and success. As an adult he fondly remembered the family kitchen with a ceiling so low he had to stoop to avoid drying clothes or dried apples and pumpkins. Otherwise, "I may as well acknowledge I should get a thwack across my noodle or leave my hat like Absalom suspended among the brambles." The Morrill family home still stands, next to the blacksmith shop, and across the Ompompanoosuc from Strafford's meeting hall.

Like most nineteenth-century New England households, the Morrill home was a busy place, where everyone had his or her chores. One of Justin's duties was churning the milk to make butter, a job he did not relish. His mother insisted that he churn in a cool place in the summer and a warm place in the winter, while he "sometimes wished the venerable wooden churn dashed into a still warmer place." Mary's discipline, he admitted, taught him to stick to a task until he finished. Perhaps, the tenacity with which he pursued goals, such as additional funding for the land-grant colleges, can be trace to his mother's persistence.

When Justin was seven, President James Monroe visited Strafford. Mary dressed her son in a new suit, with many buttons and a wide, ruffled collar. A stiff, bell-topped, red "morocco" hat gave the outfit its crowning touch. The family walked the two and a half miles to South Strafford to see the president. Unfortunately, as they waited for President Monroe, who was a few hours late, rain began to fall. The rain caused the dye in the red hat to run and the pasteboard, which gave the hat its illustrious shape, to collapse. The much anticipated event consisted of a brief glimpse of Monroe in a closed coach and a presidential wave to the rain-soaked, roadside crowd. During the long walk home, other boys ridiculed Justin and the other four or five youngsters with their "cardinal head regalia." Only the presence of adults prevented retaliation. Interestingly, Morrill retained the memory of the ridicule and humiliation into his old age.

Justin's education started early, with his mother "inducing" him to read the Bible. He later recalled that he found some of the Old Testament books "tedious," but the Book of Job and the stories of David and Noah were "so attractive as to demand a second reading and sometimes a third." (One wonders what he found "so attractive" in Job's trials and tribulations.) He began formal classes in what he described as an old, "flat square-roofed schoolhouse." The school's interior was a testimonial to the creativity of generations of boys who had used its walls to practice their carving skills through the long, Vermont winters. The building had a huge fireplace where schoolmasters seasoned their birch switches in the hot ashes. When Justin was ten, the town built a two-story, brick school. Wearing another new suit for his first day in the new building, Justin left home early to play with his friends. Since the term began on the first Monday after Thanksgiving, winter had already come to Vermont and the pond behind the school had frozen over during the night. Justin joined his friends sliding across the ice making long scratch marks with the nails in their new shoes. Unfortunately, the ice had a weak spot and Justin broke through, soaking himself and ruining his new suit. Forced to return home for dry clothes, Justin had to endure his mother's scolding then dress in old clothes to begin school. For him, the pond had forever lost its charm

After finishing his elementary education at Strafford's brick school house, Justin attended the academy ten miles away at Thetford for a three-month term. He then completed another three-month term at Randolph Academy. The academies were similar to today's high schools, but were usually reserved for well-to-do families. Thus, ended Justin Morrill's formal education.

His love for learning, however, prompted him to continue reading and studying throughout his life. While still in elementary school, Justin learned grammar from Daniel Cobb, Strafford's lawyer. Cobb had the boy parse Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. Judge Harris, the former militia captain, gave Justin access to his personal library. The boy borrowed the History of England, Thomas Jefferson's Notes on Virginia, the Federalist, and various Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper novels

Although he attended writing and bookkeeping classes while living in Portland, Maine, mostly he was self-taught. "My Sabbath days were early and late devoted either to study or general reading." When he began earning enough to afford them, he bought his own books. Eventually Morrill possessed an impressive library ranging from classic English literature to books on architecture and gardening. These books were not to impress company, they were well-read. In later years Morrill would comment, "It has taken a long time and much labor to obtain whatever has been of any real value to me in the way of a moderate education."

While attending Randolph Academy, Justin had wanted to go to college. But when he asked his father, Nathaniel replied, "I can afford to send you, but I do not know as I could the other boys—Think it over and see what you think best." When Justin mentioned the conversation to Judge Harris, the judge reminded the boy he could pay his own way through college by teaching school during the winter. Judge Harris suggested, however, Justin might be more successful as a merchant, a calling Harris himself had pursued. When Justin finished his term at Randolph Academy, the Tyler-Robinson School District, one of several districts that ran one-room schools in Strafford, offered him a teaching position at $11 per month and room-and-board. But he followed Judge Harris' advice and accepted a clerkship in Royal Hatch's Strafford store, which only provide board. Many years later, however, he told a group of students, "I know it was a great disadvantage to me that I could not go to school." His own inability to attend college probably motivated his support for land-grant colleges and expanded educational opportunity.

After six months with Hatch, sixteen-year-old Justin moved to Judge Harris' store, where he received $45 for the first year and $75 for the second. Morrill remembered the judge spoke with "great force, clearness and pungent wit." He was also a delightful conversationalist, "full of repartee and abounding in a large fund of anecdote." Harris also had a remarkable memory, especially for political history. Morrill considered him "the intellectual peer of the foremost men of the state.,, Morrill's employment at Harris' store began a close personal-business relationship that shaped the rest of Justin Morrill's life. From this point until his own death, Harris was a primary influence in shaping Justin's life.

Jedediah Hyde Harris, the man who became Justin Morrill's mentor, role model, and second father, was born December 1784 in Norwich, Connecticut. He moved to Strafford before he was 21 years old and opened a store, which was immediately successful. Although limited to an elementary school education, Harris was an avid reader. He educated himself, especially on politics, finance and farming. James Barrett, a Vermont Supreme Court Justice who knew Harris personally, regarded him "as the most clear headed and the most intelligent man in town, as well as one of the most so in the county," and "the peer of the best in the State." His "fine presence" and intellectual ability quickly won the respect of his neighbors, who elected him to the state legislature in 1810, 1812, 1814, and 1818. Harris was a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1814, a county court judge in 1821-22, a member of the Council of Censors in 1827, a state councilor in 1828-30, and a presidential elector in 1845. He retained the title "judge" for the remainder of his life. Judge Harris spent the last 30 years of his life farming, "of which he was passionately fond and wherein he particularly exceled."

Harris married Judith Young, the daughter of Strafford's first resident minister. Mrs. Harris was a gracious host and a "veritable mother in Grace to the poor and to the afflicted." Many friends and acquaintances enjoyed the Harrises' hospitality. Morrill, a frequent guest himself, compared the Harris home to a "well-patronized hotel," where the guests were always "greeted with good cheer." The Harrises had two daughters, Marcia Ann, born the same year as Justin, and Ellen Janette, two years younger. The girls were Justin's school mates at the village school and at Thetford and Randolph Academies. The young ladies then attended the Ladies' School in Windsor, Vermont, and Mrs. Willard's Seminary in Troy, New York. The "Harris girls," known for their beauty and intellectual brilliance, were the belles of the state and lifelong friends of Justin Morrill. After his seventy-second birthday, he acknowledged Ellen Janette's birthday present with a note thanking her for the gift and for teaching "an awkward boy" to dance at 16.

Besides learning all he could as Judge Harris' clerk, Justin continued reading everything he could find. He even helped start a library association with members paying $2 each. The dues bought books, which all the members shared. After Morrill moved to Portland, Maine, the association dissolved and the remaining books disappeared. A teenaged Justin also participated in the local debating society.

In 1828, with his mother's blessing, "One Spanish Mill Dollar (1787)" (which he still had when he died seventy years later) from his father, and letters of recommendation from Judge Harris, Lawyer Daniel Cobb and Dr. Albigence Pierce, 18-year-old Justin Morrill left Strafford to seek his fortune in Portland, Maine. Dr. Jacob Hunt, his mother's brother, lived in Portland. Uncle Jacob introduced Justin to Daniel Fox, a merchant who shipped lumber to the West Indies and returned with sugar and molasses. Fox immediately hired Morrill as his bookkeeper. Judge Harris obviously had taught his pupil well. A short time later Dr. Hunt advised Justin to accept a clerk's position in Jeremiah Dow's wholesale-retail dry goods store. Morrill worked for Dow for the next two years.

Since Dow's store was not open evenings, Justin had time to continue his self-education. Mr. Codman, a nearby attorney, lent him books, including Blackstone's Commentaries. Dr. Hunt, who enjoyed philosophy and English literature, made his personal library available to his nephew. The poet in Justin especially loved the "immortal words" of Lord Byron. He also borrowed books from the Portland Library. He polished his writing skills in anonymous articles for the local newspaper, a practice that he had begun in Strafford. One letter to the Portland Advocate, for example, criticized the Maine legislators for making it illegal to sell alcohol in less than pint quantities. Signing his article Yankee X, Morrill reasoned, "If people will have rum let them have little as they will." Morrill recalled, "It was glory enough for a mere tyro to see his papers in print and sometimes to hear them read aloud by those who were wholly ignorant of the authorship."


Excerpted from Justin Smith Morrill by Coy F. Cross II. Copyright © 1999 Coy F. Cross II. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Chapter 2 - MR Morrill GOES TO WASHINGTON,

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