Purdue Boilermakers can thank the Morrill Land Grant Act for their highly regarded college diploma.
The law, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, gave federal land to states if they agreed to use the land-sale proceeds to start colleges of agriculture and mechanic arts for the children of the working class.
With the Morrill Act’s passage, one historian noted, “higher education in the United States was no longer confined to its earlier classical, elitist beginnings.”
This was crucial for the 19th century economy, which stood at a crossroads in the early days of the Civil War. North and South clashed on the battlefield and in their visions of the country’s economic future — Would it be plantation-based and built on the backs of slave labor or a mix of farming and manufacturing based on the latest innovations in both?
In 1869, Indiana legislators chose Tippecanoe County for this new institution, a condition that came with a $150,000 startup gift from the school’s namesake, John Purdue. Purdue was a Pennsylvania native who moved to the Lafayette area in the 1830s and made a fortune in dry goods, real estate, banking and railroading.
The first classes were conducted in 1874 with six instructors and 39 students. Through time, extension offices were set up in all 92 counties offering ordinary Hoosiers educational opportunities in agriculture, family life and environmental sciences. Curricula expanded, too, encompassing aeronautics, veterinary science, business and technology.
Today, Purdue enrolls close to 40,000 undergraduate and graduate students at its West Lafayette and regional campuses and employs more than 3,000 faculty members.
“John Purdue would be amazed by the size and scope of Purdue today, especially by its global reach,” said Mitch Daniels, Purdue president and former Indiana governor. “At the same time, he would recognize that the core mission remains the same: making education accessible and taking knowledge to the public as a way to better serve our state, nation and the lives of citizens.”
Purdue was one of 48 colleges created by the original Morrill Act. A second Morrill Act passed in 1890 and targeted Southern states whose economies had yet to recover from the Civil War. Thanks to both Morrill acts and subsequent legislation, 105 land-grant colleges operate today.
Even Purdue’s mascot, the Boilermaker, can be tied to its land grant roots. In the 1890s, Purdue had just begun to field athletic teams that could compete against the dominant private colleges of the day such as Wabash, Butler and DePauw. In the 1891 season football opener, Purdue scored a 44-0 victory against Wabash, prompting the Crawfordsville newspaper to declare that the men of Wabash had been “snowed completely under by the burly boilermakers from Purdue.”
The reference underscored the working class origins of so many Purdue students, some of them whose parents made actual boilers, the source of steam that powered the new industrial economy.
It’s an image still relevant today, Daniels observes.
“We continue to believe it is our role to open the gates of higher education to all, not just to the privileged, and to concentrate on the skills and discoveries that build a great country and a great economy,” he said.
Directions: From Interstae 65, go west toward Lafayette on South Street. Proceed for four miles and cross the Wabash River into West Lafayette.
Visitor parking: Grant Street Parking Garage, 101 North Grant St., West Lafayette.
This is one in a series of essays that lead to the celebration of the Indiana Bicentennial in December 2016. The essays will focus on the top 100 events, ideas and historical figures of Indiana, beginning with the impact of the Ice Age and ending with the legacy of the Bicentennial itself. Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.