A new kind of higher education: Lincoln and the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862

February 10, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – On Feb. 12 we celebrate the birthday of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, with a tribute to his important role in planting Penn State’s land-grant roots.

Visitors to Old Main may wonder why the Land-Grant Frescoes, painted by muralist Henry Varnum Poor, feature the president so prominently: In the center of the north panel, a larger-than-life Lincoln stands beside a student to whom he has just given a sapling, with the original Old Main under construction behind them. In Lincoln, Poor saw a symbol of hope and faith in the promise of a new kind of higher education.

Henry Varnum Poor working on the Land-Grant Frescoes

In this circa late-1930s photograph, observed by interested students, faculty and staff, Henry Varnum Poor works on the "Lincoln panel" of the Old Main Land-Grant Frescoes. He completed the north wall, supported by a gift from the class of 1932, in 1940.

IMAGE: Penn State University Archives


In 1862 President Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which provided federal support for institutions of higher learning where "the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts."

Penn State’s first president, Evan Pugh, was among those who championed Congressional passage of the act, which enabled states to sell federal land, invest the proceeds, and use the income to support colleges "where the leading object shall be, without excluding scientific and classical studies ... to teach agriculture and the mechanic arts [engineering] ... in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in all the pursuits and professions of life."

It was a new kind of higher education, emphasizing subjects that had utilitarian value to a rapidly growing nation, including engineering, the sciences, the liberal arts, and more.

In President Lincoln, artist Henry Varnum Poor saw a symbol of hope and faith in the promise of a new kind of higher education.

Two months prior to the passage of the Morrill Act, the Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania, founded in 1855 as a college of scientific agriculture, changed its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. Pugh, anticipating the bill’s passage, believed a name change would strengthen their position as the beneficiary of Pennsylvania’s land-grant funds. In April 1863 the state legislature designated the school as the Commonwealth’s sole land-grant institution.

The new legislation gave the institution – today the Pennsylvania State University -- a broad mandate to expand its curriculum and invested it with its three-part mission of teaching, research and outreach, a mission that has guided Penn State ever since.

Land Grant Frescoes Lincoln Panel closeup

A closeup of the north panel of Penn State's Land-Grant Frescoes shows a larger-than-life President Abraham Lincoln, presenting a student with a young sapling. Muralist Henry Varnum Poor saw in Lincoln the hope and promise of a new kind of higher education.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell


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Last Updated February 12, 2019