For 20 years prior to the first introduction of the bill in 1857, there was a political movement calling for the creation of agriculture colleges. The movement was led by Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois College. For example, the Michigan Constitution of 1850 called for the creation of an “agricultural school”, although it was not until February 12, 1855, that Michigan Governor Kinsley S. Bingham signed a bill establishing the United States’ first agriculture college, the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, known today as Michigan State University, which served as a model for the Morrill Act.
On February 8, 1853, the Illinois Legislature adopted a resolution, drafted by Turner, calling for the Illinois congressional delegation to work to enact a land-grant bill to fund a system of industrial colleges, one in each state. Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois believed it was advisable that the bill should be introduced by an eastern congressman, and two months later Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont introduced his bill.
Unlike the Turner Plan, which provided an equal grant to each state, the Morrill bill allocated land based on the number of senators and representatives each state had in Congress. This was more advantageous to the more populous eastern states.
The Morrill Act was first proposed in 1857, and was passed by Congress in 1859, but it was vetoed by President James Buchanan. In 1861, Morrill resubmitted the act with the amendment that the proposed institutions would teach military tactics as well as engineering and agriculture.
Aided by the secession of many states that did not support the plans, this reconfigured Morrill Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.