IFAS Matters - July 2012
Tough Times Demand Courage and Vision
On July 2, 1862, the Civil War had been raging for more than a year. What is now known as the National Mall was a muddy, makeshift campground for Union troops and a holding area for cattle. The Washington Monument wasn’t finished yet, so it became known as the "Washington Beef Depot.” Confederate troops were close to the Capitol. Times were tough.
One hundred fifty years later, I stood at a podium on the National Mall, speaking at the opening ceremony of the Sesquicentennial of the Morrill Act. It was difficult to imagine the gloomy scene so many years earlier against the colorful backdrop of people glued to smartphones, tented displays, food vendors and the Washington Monument. It struck me that during one of America’s darkest times, the 37th Congress and President Abraham Lincoln continued working on legislation that would revolutionize American education. In fact, the logs show that July 2, 1862, was a busy day for President Lincoln: he had to inform General George B. McClellan that he wasn’t able to send him more troops; he ruled that former slaves couldn’t be allowed to starve; and he signed the Morrill Act.
Upon signing the Morrill Act, President Lincoln stated, “The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people, who have invested in these public universities their hopes, their support, and their confidence.” Lincoln and the act’s author, Justin Smith Morrill, both undereducated, even by the standards of their day, understood that education was the key to America’s economic development. And even though there were monumental and immediate threats to the nation, they had the courage to act upon their vision for the country’s future.
As it turned out, their vision for equal opportunity and educating the masses has been the driving force in our prosperity for the last 150 years. Let’s hope our current leaders will have the courage to continue that legacy. As Frederick Douglass advised back in Morrill’s day: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
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