WERTHEIMER: I think, and historians like yourself, don't you believe that this was the beginning of the middle class in the heartland of the country?
EARLE: I absolutely do believe that. I mean, the two great significant aftereffects of the Homestead Act are this growing and burgeoning and exploding rural middle class; mostly white, a lot of immigrants, although you could file for a homestead if you were an ex-slave or a single woman head of household. And the other is when you're looking down from an airplane from seven miles up, you see the landscape that the Homestead Act created - that grid of quarter sections...
WERTHEIMER: That checkerboard, yes.
EARLE: Exactly, with a farmhouse in the corner and fields in the rest of it. It literally etched itself onto our landscape.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the Morrill Act was signed into law, transforming the face of American higher education. The Act, officially titled An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts had as its main purpose the creation of “at least one college in each state where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific or classical studies, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts . . . in order to promote the liberal and practical education of industrial classes.”Is it a coincidence that some of the most significant legislation in U.S. history, the Homestead Act, the Morrill Act, and the Pacific Railroad Acts, all were put in place at a time when the South wasn't a part of this country? How many other progressive measures have been fought tooth and nail by the folks from Dixie? Besides the legacy of slavery, why is that region so different from the rest of the country? And finally, why is one political party so dedicated to the ways of this particular region?
Introduced by Vermont Congressman Justin Morrill, the Act laid the groundwork for a national system of public universities. It granted each state 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of the Congress the state had. This land, or the proceeds from its sale, were to be used to establish and fund universities that focused on agriculture and engineering. Many of our leading universities (including MIT, Cornell, the University of California at Berkeley, and other universities that figure in U.S. News and World Report’s top twenty-five list) were born of this law.
The Morrill Act also made higher education more democratic. Prior to the Morrill Act, higher education was largely the domain of the elite. The Act’s support for practical studies in agriculture and engineering helped other groups in the population, including farmers and working people, obtain a university education.