Justin S. Morrill: Father of the Senate

Morrill seated in a suit

The rise of the Republicans produced some highly accomplished and notable legislators. One of these was Justin Smith Morrill (1810-1898) of Vermont. Morrill’s rise in politics in his state was not hard to explain nor due to any underhanded factors. He simply did the jobs no one else wanted to do, such as Justice of the Peace. Morrill was industrious and shrewd in his business practices and investments, which gained him enough wealth to retire before the age of 40. He initially identified with the Whig Party, being elected to Congress as one in 1854. However, as a Northern foe of slavery he easily shifted into the Republican Party formed after the demise of the Whigs, being one of its founders in the state of Vermont. As chair of the Ways and Means Committee, he sponsored the Morrill Tariff, the Land Grant College Act, and the nation’s first income tax. Morrill hadn’t gone to college due to lack of funds but appreciated them as centers of pursuing knowledge and truth. As he stated, “This bill proposes to establish at least one college in every State upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil, where all of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught, where neither the higher graces of classical studies nor that military drill our country now so greatly appreciates will be entirely ignored, and where agriculture, the foundation of all present and future prosperity, may look for troops of earnest friends, studying its familiar and recondite economies, and at last elevating it to that higher level where it may fearlessly invoke comparison with the most advanced standards of the world” (Parker, 52). Indeed, it is astounding how much of an impact Morrill had and continues to have through the universities established as a result of his legislation. Many people who don’t know who he is have to this day benefited.

In 1867, Morrill was elected to the Senate, where he would serve as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee for a standing record of 17 years and supported Reconstruction measures and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. For a long time he lobbied for successor land grant legislation that would cover the former Confederacy, which he finally achieved in 1890, with this measure funding numerous universities that required that admissions be done without racial discrimination or be separate schools (to attract Southern support, segregation was not prohibited), some now known as historically black colleges.

The Ideological Morrill

In 1862, Morrill sponsored the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which cracked down on polygamy among Mormons in the Utah territory by imposing a $500 fine and up to five years imprisonment for the practice. Most politicians of the time supported this legislation and was one of the issues that united Republicans of the day. Indeed, the party platform in 1856 called for abolishing the “twin relics of barbarism – polygamy and slavery” in the territories (George & Saunders). Morrill was one of the more moderate Republicans initially and often opposed land grants to railroads and dissented on printing paper currency as a means to fund the war effort. Morrill grew more conservative as the Gilded Age progressed. He was a supporter of hard currency, particularly the gold standard. Morrill also sponsored the first income tax as a means to fund the War of the Rebellion, and opposed a revision to make the tax structure progressive, holding that it penalized people for gaining wealth. He stated, “This provision goes upon the principle of taxing a man because he is richer than another. The very theory of our institutions is entire equality, that we make no distinction between the rich man and the poor man. The man of moderate means is just as good as the man with more means, but our theory of government does not admit that he is better” (TIME).  Morrill would favor a peacetime modest income tax for revenue and to offset the impact of high tariffs, but after the wartime income tax expired, he proved a foe. He voted along with most Senate Republicans to eliminate the income tax from the Revenue Act of 1894, which imposed a minor tax on the top 2% of the wealthy. In 1897, Morrill voted for the Lodge Bill to impose a literacy test on immigrants, which was vetoed by President Cleveland. He died in office the following year at 88. Morrill had served 43 years continuously, a record in his time. Before his passing his colleagues came to respectfully know him as the “Father of the Senate”.


George, R.P. & Saunders, W.L. (2004, August 30). Republicans and The Relics of Barbarism. National Review.

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Justin S. Morrill. U.S. Senate.

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Morrill Act of 1890. Alabama A&M University.

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Parker, W.B. (1924). The life and public services of Justin Smith Morrill. New York, NY: Hougton Mifflin.

Pollack, S.D. (2013). The First National Income Tax, 1861-1872. University of Delaware.

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Taxes: The Big Bite. (1952, March 10). TIME.

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To Agree to the Conference Report on H.R. 7864, the Immigration Laws Bill Amending the Immigration Laws of the United States. Govtrack.

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To Amend H.R. 4864 By Eliminating All Sections Relating to the Income Tax. Govtrack.

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