Justin Morrill was born in Strafford in 1810 and was the oldest of 10 children. His school career ended at the age of 14, and he took a job with a storekeeper at $30 a year. In 1831, he formed a partnership with his first employer. He subsequently withdrew from the partnership, married, and embarked on a congressional career.
In 1854, at the age of 45, he was elected as a Whig to Congress by 59 votes and began a congressional career which encompassed 32 years in the Senate and 12 in the House of Representatives. It has been recorded that he gave over 100 speeches, and in the congressional records, his name appeared over 2000 times relating to bill introduction, resolutions and speeches.
Biographer Joseph Hills wrote: “A clearness and simplicity of his expositions, his remarkable grasp of details, as well as of broad, general principles, and his unfailing courtesy toward opponents, coupled with unyielding firmness in maintaining the rights of himself or his committee, made him remarkably successful in guiding a piece of projected legislation through the confused tangle of a running debate.”
Morrill had much to do with the construction of important buildings in Washington, such as the Washington Monument and helping with the design of the Congressional Library.
Another important contribution was his sponsorship of the Morrill tariff. Enacted the same year the Civil War began, it provided additional funds for President Lincoln to finance the war. One of Lincoln’s biographers said the tariff had “double affect of materially increasing the customs receipts and stimulating the productive energies of the country. It went into operation on the first of April, 1861, and thus, its quickening and strengthening help came just at the opportune time, when the nation was compelled to gird up its loins for a gigantic war.”
Morrill’s greatest achievement was the land grant college bill, passed in 1862. This legislation gave every state 30,000 acres of public domain based upon its population. The law provided for a college of mechanic arts an agriculture in each state.
The president of Cornell University, Andrew White, said of the Morrill Act: “While the windows of the Senate-house were rattling with the enemy’s cannon, those men had such faith in the destiny of the Nation, and such trust in the arts of peace that they quietly and firmly legislated into being this great, comprehensive system of industrial and scientific education. In all American annals I know of no more noble utterance of faith in national destiny out from the midst of national calamity. It was one of the most beneficient measures ever proposed in any country.” White called Morrill “one of the most useful and far-seeing statesmen our country has ever known.”
On the occasion of Senator Morrill’s 86th birthday, the following poem was read:
Most Honored Friend:
‘Tis marvelous done,
Today the chariot of the circling sun,
With burnished wheel and grandly waving plume,
With garlands fresh from friendship’s sweet perfume,
Hath passed at eighty-six,
The natal day. How far away it seems,
Yet the long vista of man’s brightened dreams
So well fulfilled, so truly bravely fought
So well fulfilled, so truly bravely fraught,
With patriotic deeds and lofty purpose wrought
We to thy name affix.
Morrill died in December, 1898. Upon his death, Massachusetts Senator George Hoar said, “For nearly half a century, Vermont has spoken through him in our National Council, until, one after the other, almost every question affecting the public welfare has been decided in accordance with his opinion.”