Centennnial History of the University of Nebraska, by Robert Manley

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institutions never came into existence, and remained paper colleges until the expiration of their charters, but for a brief period the game of college-makking was played with great enthusiasm. There was a blank charter form, with spaces for insertion of the proposed institution's name, a list of trustees, and the place of incorporation. This standardized form of relieved the legislators of wearisome duties and expedited the "founding" of colleges. Promoters eagerly took advantage of the legislature's willingness of grant charters. At least four characters for a "univeristy of Nebraska" were issued. One of these projected universities was included in the plans of the Nebraska Colonization Company, organized in Quincy, Illinois. From the outset the company's leaders envisioned a university in conjunction with the new town they were promoting. When their advance agents arrived in Cass County in September, 1854, they laid claim to an area on the Elkhorn. In early 1855 they surveyed the tract, setting apart 112 acres for "Nebraska University." At the same time, company representatives secured a charter for the proposed school from the legislature. Although the university came into legal existence on February 28, 1855, it did not begin operation until October 20, 1858; lack of adequate funds plagued it from the outset, and in 1859 it went under. Residents of Brownville opened a college in 1857, and Nebraska City and Plattsmouth had plans for colleges which came to nothing. Columbus promoters in 1860 secured a charter for a university, and in 1864 the legislature chartered the Nemaha Valley and Normal Institute in Pawnee City. Prospects for the latter seemed favorable, for the institute was the first in the state that already had a building when the charter was granted. The charter granted in 1865 to the Johnson County Seminary indicated that the applicants had given some thought to its uses: rooms in the seminary building would serve as the county courthouse, thus saving much tax money for the residents of that county. But with one exception the colleges chartered by teh Territorial Legislature proved to be either premature or promotional. The one exception was the Peru Seminary and College, chartered in 1860, which became Peru Normal School (later Peru State Teachers College) by an act of legislature in 1867. Although the campaign to establish paper colleges eventually verged upon the ludicrous, it would be wrong to assume that there was no genuine interest in higher education in the Territory. Many of the Territory's foremost leaders were graduates of eastern colleges, seminaries, and academics. Their interest in education, particularly in higher education, transcended commercial and speculative goals. Once the uncertain years of the territorial era had passed, this concern provided the foundation for important developments in the field of higher education.

Nebraska and the Morrill Act In 1860 federal census takers counted only 28,841 persons in Nebraska Territory. Small wonder that money was hard to find for educational ventures. Lackign local financial resources, Nebraskans early turned to the federal government for assistance. Memorial after memorial flowed from the Nebraska Legislature requesting federal funds or federal land grants for the support of educational institutions chartered by the Territory. While these memorials drew no response from Washington, it was the federal government which eventually provided the real impetus for higher education in Nebraska. The instrument of this encouragement was the famous Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862. The concept of federal aid to education embodied in the Morrill Act was not new. Thomas Jefferson and other leaders had drafted legislation, such as the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787, which defined the federal government's land policy and provided for the

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political development of the region. They wanted to make settlement in the West attractive, and they thought that providing public lands for the support of schools would promote the end. In this way a precedent was provided for that many landgrant schemes which appeared in the nineteenth century. In the decades preceding Civil War, agricultural leaders and educational reformers called upon Congress to support the creation of colleges devoted to teaching agricultural and mechanical subjects. The upshot of this long and strenuous campaign was a bill introduced into Congress in 1857 by Representative Justin S. Morill of Vermont. Morrill's original bill, which provided parcels of public land for the endowment of these so-called land-grant colleges, passed both houses of Congress by a narrow margin, only to be vetoed by President Buchanan, who was acutely sensitive to the states' rights and southern wings of his Democratic party. Not until June, 1862, with southerners removed from Congress, could the bill be enacted into law. The Morrill Act was designed "to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life." This meant that the colleges to be established under the law would emphasize agricultural and mechanical studies, although traditional courses were not to be ignored. Each state accepting the provisions of the act was to receive thirty thousand acres of land from the public domain for each senator and representative in the federal Congress. For states which no longer had public domain within their borders, the act provided for the issuance of land scrip-certificates which could be sold by the states without public land and redeemed by the purchaser in any section of the country where public lands remained. Thus the public domain, particularly in the West, would provide financial support for colleges in states where the public domain was exhausted. Many Americans had doubts about the value of agricultureal and mechanical education, and westerners had very pronounced views concerning the land scrip provision of the act. Morrill can hardly be classified as an original thinker. His bill brought together a number of seperate ideas that had existed in the country for a considerable time. The long-debated question of who actually originated the land-grant college concept need not detain us; what matters is that the Morrill Act committed the federal government to a program of aid to higher education at a critical time. As the nation expanded westward and as material wealth increased, the need for more institutions of higher learning was obvious. In the long run the burden of supporting the new land-grant colleges fell almost entirely upon the states, but the federal grant was of crucial significance in inducing the states to create colleges and universities. The reaction of many Nebraskans to the Morrill Act demonstrates that educational legislation can never be considered separate from circumstances of the time. Reaction in the Territory was colored by politics and by economic considerations. For example, word of Buchanan's veto of the original Morrill bill was received by Democrats in the Territory with approval. On March 9, 1859, The Nebraskan, a Democratic newspaper published in Omaha, remarked that while the proposal undoubtedly was popular in the East, it would "have been suicidal to the interest of the new states and territories." Sustaining the President's veto upon the grounds that the Morrill bill exceeded federal authority and encroached upon the powers of the state, the editor also said that the bill, with its land scrip provision, would place much of Nebraska's rich lands "beyond the reach of honest settlers." The measure deserved to be vetoed by the courageous Buchanan, who possed the nerve "to boldly forbid such a wrong to our people." Agreeing that the land scrip provision represented a danger to western interests. J. Sterling Morton, editor of the Nebraska City News, voiced another objection. In an edi


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torial published March 12, 1859, he completely rejected the idea of agricultural education:

One of the most visionary, impractical and useless schemes for the political self-aggrandisement that was ever thought of, is this of building agricultural colleges all over the country. They are a sinecure, perfectly useless absolutely detri-mental. We want the sturdy bone and sinew, the strong arms and stout beard, to cultivate our soil, not gentleman farmers, kid-gloved, cologne-scented pampered genry, with a smattering of science--with a strong compounded laziness. Agricu-ltural colleges have been tied and have resulted in miserable. . .failures.

The degree to which criticism was prompted by selfish considerations is im-possible to determine. The western spokesmen argued that the land scrip would take the land from the hands of the settlers and give it over to eastern speculators. Nothing aroused western ire more quickly than the thought that western lands would pass into the possession of eastern capitalists. Even so, the western attitude was slightly hypocritical, for while men of the West bewailed the inroads of east-ern speculators, they were not greatly exercised by schemes which permitted the frontiersmen themselves to grab off a piece of land for speculative purposes. It is indeed likely that many of those who objected to the issuance of agricultural college scrip feared that easterners would beat them to the best land. By 1862 a growing resentment against withdrawal of any lands from public entry could be detected in the West, and upon this basis many opposed the Morrill Act.

Although by 1862 the Congressional situation had altered sufficiently to per-mit the passage of the bill, the skepticism of the western settlers did not diminish. Nebraska Democrats evolved more sophisticated arguments against the Morrill concept--editor Morton, for example, in June, 1862, insisted that the Morrill Act was part of a project designed to turn Nebraska into a colonization area for "free niggers"--but the most vehement attacks still were launched against the land scrip provision. Democratic editors predicted that vast portions of Nebraska'a lands would be withdrawn from the reach of honest settlers should the bill be enacted; and even stalwart Republicans pointed out the paradoxical action of Congress, which, on the one hand, enacted the Homestead law that provided "free homes for free men," and, on the other, enacted the Morrill bill, which was generally con-strued as an open invitation to speculation in western lands. Years later H. J. Dobbs, in his history of Gage County, wrote about "the predatory effects of the Agricultural College Land Grant Act . . . . more than half of Gage county's fair domain gone increase the educational facilities of the wealthy eastern states and line the pockets of speculators in college scrip."1

The controversy over land scrip to the contrary notwithstanding, it is sur-prising how little discussion of the Morrill bill appeared in Nebraska newspapers. Two very important questions appear not to have been raised at all: First, did the settlers want the federal government to assume the role of benefactor for state colleges? And second, would the financial arrangements outlined in the Morrill bill prove adequate to the task of providing educational opportunities for "the agricultural and industrial classes"?

Despite the propensity of twentieth-century westerners to deprecate federal activities, the prairie pioneer seldom resented federal laws drawn to help him overcome the problems of frontier existence. In nineteenth-century Nebraska


1 Adverse reaction to agricultural scrip was particularly noticeable in Gage and Nuckolls counties, where between 1881 and 1886 a wealthy Irish immigrant, William Scully, purchased sixty-five thousand acres of land. Residents of the two counties said that Scully used agricultural scrip to build his holdings.


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only the conservative wing of the Democratic party-the so-called Boubons-led by J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City and George Miller, publisher of the Omaha Herald, consistently opposed all federal programs, but their attitude was not widely shared. The rugged individuals who inhabited the Nebraska frontier had little use for the philosphy of states' rights. The Republican party, which by 1862 controlled territorial politics, wanted the assistance of the federal government in developing the West. The role of government in encouraging the rise of big business was widely acknowledged. Western Republicans believed that the farmer-the "real wealth-producer"-deserved the same consideration from Washington. Pragmatic frrontier farmers anxious to break the sod and get their crops into the rich earth were willing to use any means, including federal programs, to help them develop their prairaie holdings. In the final analysis, many Nebraskans ignored the Morrill Act because they were to busy maintaining their precarious hold on the harsh land; some rejected the measure out of hand as an unwarranted expansion of federal paternalism into the affairs of the people of the nation; and others accepted it as they had other federal statues which attempted to assist in the development of the nation. It must be remembered that in the early 1860's, under Lincoln's leadership, Congress passed a number of significant pieces of legislation: the Pacific Railroad Act; an act establishing a Department of Agriculture; the Morrill Act; and, finally, the Homestead Act. All of these seemed to portend benefits for the settles, and the western Republican accepted them as a just reward for the risky business of settling the wilderness. Second throughts there would be in time about federal programs, but in the 1860's the pioneers were eager to share in the largesse distributed by Washington. It is hard to answer even tentatively the second question: did the land-grant system offer adequate financial support for agricultural and mechanical colleges? In Nebraska, advocates for the Morrill Act argued with great sincerity that the ninety thousand acres of land given to the state would prove sufficient for the establishment of a university or agricultural college, or both. And if this endowment wasa inadequate, there were other available resources- for example, Governor Saunders pointed out that the federal government usually bestowed upon new states seventy-two sections of land to help endow a state univeristy. For Saunders here was one reason to press for immediate statehood. Proponents of the MOrrill plan were agreed that the statehood grant combined with the MOrrill grant would constitute a firm finacial basis for a state university. This kind of sanguine reasoning underminded opposition to the MOrrill Act in Nebrasak. After all, if the state university was not going to cost any money, why oppose it? Later, when the administrators of the University of Nebraska came to the legislature for tax funds, opposition materialized. After all, had not the people been told that no tax funds would ever be required to support the state institution? And for years there persisted the widespread feeling that the leaders of the University of Nebraska had squandered and misused the federal grant. If Nebraskans generally had been acquainted with the provisions of the Morrill Act, this unfortunate misunderstanding would never have arisen. The average citizen believed that the lands given to Nebraska by the federal government were to be sold, and the revenue used to maintain the land-grant university. This was only partly true, since under the law the money realized from the sale of the lands was to be placed in a permanent endowment fund. Only a small portion of the land revenues and the income from the investment could be used to support the college. Hence, the income available to the land-grant colleges

----------------------- 2: Under an act of Congress of April 19, 1864, the future University of Nebraska eventually received 46,080 acres.


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seldom exceeded 5 per cent of the fund. More discouraging, insofar as the land grant was concerned, was that the time could hardly have been less propitious for the sale of land. State officials who had the responsibility for selling the Morrill lands found the market inundated with homestead claims, railroad lands, and state lands, to say nothing of the agricultural college scrip issued by eastern states which could be used to redeem public land within Nebraska. Astute observers saw the difficulty at once. As a Lincoln newspaper, the Nebraska Commonwealth, argued, if the Morrill lands were sold cheaply, the revenue would not be sufficient to endow a state university. And yet who could expect a settler to purchase college lands when vast expanses of cheaper lands, and even great tracts of free homestead lands, were available? Yet it must be noted that the Nebraska legislators, into whose jurisdiction the selection and disposition of the Morrill lands fell, did not act precipitantly. Many states chose their lands as quickly as possible and sold them at the going market price. As a result, they realized inconsequential amounts of money from their Morrill gifts. In Nebraska, partly by design and partly by accident, the course of action was different. After the legislature accepted the provisions of the Morrill Act, no one knew precisely what the next step should be. In 1867 the legislature set up the machinery required to select public lands, but four years passed before anything was done. Political upheavals during the administration of Governor David Butler undoubtedly delayed the selection of the Morrill lands; and only after the impeachment of Butler in June, 1871, could the matter be given attention. At this point the men who were to stake out Nebraska's agricul tural college land grant found that much of the best land in the eastern part of the state had already been taken. Laboring under the most trying circumstances imaginable, the commissioners finally succeeded in laying claim to Nebraska's ninety thousand acres, but most of the property lay in the northeastern portion of the state far from railroads and was usually of inferior quality.3 In 1867 the legislature placed a five-dollar-per-acre minimum price upon the college lands, increasing it to seven dollars in 1873. Although the lands did not pass into the market until the 1880's, the eventual result was most sstisfactory. Nebraska's grant increased in value as a result of the steadily rising land market. While immediate returns were deferred, Nebraska ultimately realized a return of $8.37 an acre on these lands, well above the amount received by other states. In handling her land grant, Nebraska acted wisely and well. Yet it must be emphasized that in the 1860's there was no general understand ing of the actual financial arrangements ordained by the Morrill Act. Editors continued to say that the federal lands constituted an unparalleled boon for the new state. The comments of the editor of the Omaha Republican in July, 1869, are typical: "Nebraska is the only state in the Union that builds her State House, her University and Insane Asylum without taxing the people one cent, and has resources enough left, in Lincoln lots alone, to build a Penitentiary and other public edifices." Political figures for years argued along similar lines. In 1878 Senator Paddock, in an address at the Nebraska State Fair, said that "the liberal endowment by the Federal Government of two sections of land in each township for our schools, together with the additional grant of about 135,000 acres for a State University and an Agricultural College--all protected from undervaluation and fraudulent sale by careful restrictions in the Constitution of the State--secure


3 The counties in which the grant lands were located and the amounts secured are as follows: Burt, 640 acres; Cedar, 25,405.47 acres; Cuming, 960 acres; Dakota, 640 acres; Dixon, 2,240 acres; Knox, 33,491.20 acres; Pierce, 10,114.56 acres; Wayne, 15,648.98 acres. The total came to slightly less than the authorized 90,000 acres.


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