Wednesday, July 11, Virginia Tech celebrated the 150-year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln signing the Morrill Act into law, which established the land-grant school system from which Tech was founded.
The land-grant system was an initiative, beginning in 1862, to make higher education available to people who could not usually afford it by giving states the responsibility of land on which to establish schools.
The celebration event — which was in the Newman Library Study Café and was open to the public — was one of two exhibits scheduled to spotlight President Lincoln and his political accomplishments.
Dr. Tom Ewing, Tech history professor and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, coordinated the celebration.
Ewing said that one of the reasons it is important to highlight the signing of the Morrill Act is because it shows the connections of past actions to the present.
He said that at the time, one year into the Civil War, Congress passed and Lincoln signed a number of crucial acts that shaped not only the immediate experience of the United States, but the subsequent years as well.
“The Morrill Act is one of those in understanding how the actions of 1862 had a long-term effect on American history,” Ewing said. “The system has grown and evolved and transformed since then and Virginia Tech is a really good example of that.”
Events such as the celebration on Wednesday, Ewing said, are also a way for people to learn more about the origins of their university to appreciate the significance of why it was established.
“It’s a good reminder for people, not only why history matters, but how actions taken in the past continue to reverberate in the present,” he said. “Certainly, no one at the time realized the significance of what would come out of it, but they did understand that (education) was an important investment in society.”
Stephen O’Hara, recent Virginia Tech masters graduate of history with focused research in 19th century U.S. history, was asked by Dr. Ewing to research the Morrill Act and was one of the speakers of the celebration.
O’Hara said that one of the most interesting aspects of the act being passed was how many things that seemed unlikely had to happen the right way, yet they did and that is why Virginia Tech stands where it is today.
“The overarching theme of the unlikely hood of the act, from the timing in July 1862, which the Civil War is still going on and Stonewall Jackson has an army in the Shenandoah Valley a few miles away and yet, this revolutionary policy bill gets passed,” O’Hara said. “It just seems like timing that you would not expect.”
O’Hara said that many Virginia schools were vying for the land-grant status, most notably the University of Virginia and Virginia Military Institute. The General Assembly, he said, debated whether the status should go to an established school or a new one.
“They eventually decided to go with something a little more off the radar,” O’Hara said. “It was a school that was able to say that ‘We can adopt to these programs in agriculture and mechanics that’s required of the new school, and we’ll change our name.’”