The farmers' millennium: the ideology of agricultural improvement in Iowa, 1855 to 1865

Date
2014-01-01
Authors
Belding, Michael
Belding, Michael
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Kathleen Hilliard
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History
Abstract

The Morrill Act of 1862, a piece of federal legislation enacted a century and a half ago, lives on today. That law allocated thousands of acres of federal land to state governments, based on the size of their congressional delegations, so they could establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanic arts and give a college education, liberal and practical, to students who could not otherwise afford one. The Morrill Act lives on because the "land-grant colleges" it endowed with financial resources still exist today, operating on billion-dollar budgets and enrolling tens of thousands of students. Further, at least at Iowa State University, each incoming president's in-augural address has involved an explanation of the land-grant idea.

In the past three decades, that explanation has devolved from the broad view, held for a century, that land-grant colleges should prepare their students to be productive economically and politically, that they should educate them to be competent engineers and agriculturists as well as civic-minded people capable of acting not just in someone's private interest, but in their commu-nity's - their polity's - public interest. The latest presidents of Iowa State have, since the 1980s, put forward an explanation of the land-grant idea that places economic values, rather than politi-cal values, at the center of the university's existence. The work of historians of agriculture and the land-grant colleges has not been much better, the former paying little attention to the land-grant colleges and the latter more often than not failing to see the larger context in which the col-leges were created and have existed.

This thesis investigates the ideology that played a role in Iowa State University's creation in the late 1850s and early 1860s as the Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm. In the mid- to late 1850s, acting out of a concern for declining soil fertility (or the potential for it), the Iowa State Agricultural Society formulated an ideology of sustainable land use, scientific inves-tigation of farming techniques, and the equal dignity of labor (agricultural and mechanical work) with the more esteemed professions. The Society turned to a number of educational institutions, including annual fairs, agricultural periodicals, seed distribution programs by the federal govern-ment, township-level farmers' clubs, the state geological survey, and the state agricultural college, chartered in 1858, before the Morrill Act's passage. The author undertook this thesis because he believes that, if Iowa State's administration are going to invoke the history of the Morrill Act to rationalize their actions, they ought to know what that history is.

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