Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.): 150th Anniversary of Morrill Act

Posted on June 28, 2012

On Monday, the Library of Congress hosted the 150th anniversary celebration of the creation of land-grant universities and the National Academy of Sciences. The assemblage also took a moment to throw a bouquet to Andrew Carnegie for founding so many free public libraries.

I am on the floor to ask this question: What was in the water in Washington, DC, 150 years ago, in 1862 and 1863? During the two years after the telegraph dispatched the Pony Express in 1861, Congress and President Lincoln enacted the Morrill Act creating land-grant colleges, authorized the Transcontinental Railroad -- reducing the time for getting from New York to San Francisco from 6 months to 6 days -- as well as the National Academy of Sciences, and enacted the Homestead Act. They also agreed on a conscription law with teeth, a National Banking Act, establishing a national currency, a new internal revenue law, and created the Department of Agriculture. To top it off, on December 2, 1863, the last section of the Statue of Freedom was put in place on top of the Capitol dome, with a great celebration.

Mr. President, if I were the Republican national chairman, I might suggest that this transforming burst of governing was simply a matter of turning the government completely over to Republicans and sending home half of the Democrats. By the end of the 37th Congress in 1863, southern Democratic U.S. Senators could not obstruct any of these laws because their States had seceded from the Union and they could not to vote. According to the Senate Historian, that left 48 Senators voting at the end of that session -- 27 Republicans, 12 Democrats, and 9 Unionists, oppositionists, or Senators who called themselves the "know nothings."

Perhaps this burst of governing came from the energy of a new political party or the brilliance of the new President, Abraham Lincoln, or maybe a Congress that was simply more efficient in those days. The Morrill Act that created land-grant colleges passed both the Senate and House in the same week, in June 1862. The President signed the bill into law 2 weeks later. The National Academy of Sciences was introduced on February 20, 1863. It passed the Senate and the House and was signed by the President all on the same day, March 3. Back in those days, the President would obligingly travel down Pennsylvania Avenue and sit in an office in the Capitol waiting for bills to be brought to him for signature.

Maybe it was a result of the state of the American condition at the time -- the absence of a 24-hour media, special interest groups, and instant communication on the Internet. Or maybe it was that Members of Congress had more time to think great thoughts while traveling to the sessions. It would take Senator Sam Houston 6 weeks to travel from his home in Texas to occupy his Senate desk in Washington, DC.

There is no doubt it helped that there was a crisis—the Civil War. Americans have always risen to our best in the midst of a crisis. Making the crisis worse, many thought the new President was incompetent. In January 1863, former Supreme Court Justice Benjamin R. Curtis "reported general agreement on the utter incompetence of the President. He is shattered, dazed and utterly foolish." This is from David Herbert Donald's book "Lincoln." The editor of the Cincinnati Commercial was more explicit when he wrote that President Lincoln was "an awful, woeful ass. If Lincoln was not a damn fool, we could get along yet." The President, in turn, considered many of his generals incompetent. And he and Mrs. Lincoln were suffering a personal crisis at the time, grieving the death of their son, Willie.

The war crisis clearly helped to enact transforming legislation in 1862 and 1863. One impetus for passage of the law creating land-grant colleges was to provide military training.

Among the first assignments of the National Academy of Sciences was to find some way to protect the iron hulls of the Union Navy warships from corrosion.

General Grenville Dodge told President Lincoln that the Transcontinental Railroad was a "military necessity," even though Representative Justin Morrill, a visionary in other matters, said he saw no need for the railroad to go further than the silver mines in Nevada because it would only be traveling through uninhabited territories.

The war caused the bickering Republicans who remained in Congress to pull together. The editor of the Chicago Tribune explained: “[If we fail], then all is lost. Union, party cause, freedom and abolition of slavery...let us first get the ship out of the breakers, then court martial the officers if they deserve it.”

Mr. President, it helped to have a crisis.

Unfortunately, the formula for the passage of transforming legislation 150 years ago is not neatly explained as a crisis, plus a brilliant President, plus a high-minded Congress efficiently enacting big ideas developed in Washington, DC. The real story is much more American than that. As has usually been the case, these big American ideas came from outside Washington, they took a long time in coming, and enacting them into law was a long and messy process.

Jonathan Baldwin Turner's address before the Illinois Teachers Institute in 1850 proposed the creation of an "industrial university" 12 years before enactment of the Morrill Act.

Representative Morrill first introduced the idea in 1857. After much struggle, it passed in 1959, but President Buchanan vetoed it. Two years later, Morrill succeeded. And even though the obstructionist Southerners were gone, eastern and western Republicans argued vigorously over land grants, as well as where the new Transcontinental Railroad should go.

The roots of the National Academy of Sciences can be traced to a group of Cambridge scientists meeting in the 1850s or to earlier philosophical organizations before that or even all the way back to Benjamin Franklin. California entrepreneurs and speculators and politicians -- some of them were all three -- were the ones who persisted in the 1850s until, in 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act became law.

So the formula for success for these transforming laws 150 years ago was typically American: big ideas bubbling up from around the country, plus entrepreneurial persistence, plus a crisis equals transforming results.

How does that formula apply today to improving the American condition? Well, to begin with, we have a handy crisis. Washington is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends. By this rate, by 2025, every penny of tax revenue will go for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the national debt, leaving nothing left -- unless we borrow more -- for national defense, national laboratories, national parks, research, or education. A second crisis, many fear, is that our country will be unable to compete in the future with the emerging Asian economies. So what transforming steps should the United States take to meet these new challenges?

My own view is that rather than creating new institutions, as America did in the 1850s and 1860s, it would be wiser for us to spend our time making the institutions we already have work.

Let me discuss just two examples. First, our basic governmental institutions. The new Foreign Minister of Australia, Bob Carr, a great friend of the United States, expressed recently in Washington, DC, that the United States is one budget deal away from reasserting its preeminence in the world. He means, of course, that the world is watching, actually hoping, that at the end of the year the United States will demonstrate that we actually can govern ourselves by resolving the fiscal mess we have in a way that reforms taxes, controls spending, and reduces debt. We do not need a new government to do this. We need for our newly elected President, whether his name be Romney or Obama, to lead.

President Lyndon B. Johnson's Press Secretary, George Reedy, once defined Presidential leadership as seeing an urgent need, developing a strategy to meet that need, and persuading at least half the people that you are right.

We don't need to change the rules of the United States Senate; we simply need a change in behavior -- one that focuses less on playing games and more on getting results. The new Congress, next year's Congress, whether it be Republican or Democratic, must make its goal to dispute, amend, debate, vote upon the President's proposed agenda, and then help the President succeed, because if he succeeds our country succeeds.

We might well remember the words of that Chicago Tribune editorial writer in 1862 who said: “Let us first get the ship out of the breakers... then court martial the officers if they deserve it.”

The second institutions we should refurbish and make work are our colleges and universities -- all 6,000 of them, not just the land-grant universities that we celebrate this week. Again, we do not need new institutions; we need to reassert the greatness of the ones we have. Our universities, along with our national labs, are our secret weapons for innovation, and innovation is our secret weapon for producing 25 percent of all the money in the world for just 5 percent of the world's population.

The list of what it would take to strengthen our colleges and universities is short and mostly agreed upon. First, stop sending home every year 17,000 of the 50,000 international students who graduate from U.S. universities with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Give them a green card and let them stay here to create jobs in the United States.

Next, double funding for advanced research, as the America COMPETES Act, which passed with huge bipartisan support in the Senate, has already authorized.

Third, repeal the federal Medicaid mandates that force States to spend money on Medicaid that otherwise would go to higher education. This has resulted in dramatic decreases in State support and increases in tuition to try to maintain quality.

Next, while Congress is repealing the Medicaid mandates, it should literally cut in half the stack of regulations that hampers institutional autonomy and wastes dollars that should be spent on students and research.

Finally, the institutions themselves should look for ways to save money, such as full utilization of facilities during the summer, 3-year degrees for some students, and reforms to teacher tenure.

In the 1960s, Mitt Romney's father, George Romney, offered this advice to the big three Detroit automobile manufacturers: “Nothing is more vulnerable than entrenched success.”

The big three did not pay attention to that advice, and we see what happened. It is good advice for universities today.

In conclusion, I wish to say a word about the Carnegie libraries. My experience is that most ideas fail for lack of the idea; or to put it positively, that a great idea eventually carries itself into reality. Andrew Carnegie's great idea was building public libraries. All of us know of their importance.

I remember when the New York Times wrote an article about me. They said: Mr. Alexander grew up in a lower middle-class family at the edge of the Tennessee mountains.

When I called home later that week to talk with my mother, she was reading Thessalonians to gather strength for what she considered to be a slur on the family. She said to me: “Son, we never thought of ourselves that way. You had a library card from the day you were 3 and a music lesson from the day you were 4. You had everything you needed that was important.”

Andrew Carnegie's gift and the Federal laws 150 years ago creating land grant universities and the National Academy of Sciences and the transcontinental railroad and the Homestead Act all have this in common. They were not command-and-control Federal Government actions from Washington, DC. They were big ideas that, when implemented, empowered Americans to do things for themselves -- to travel, to own a home, to educate themselves, and to learn by using a library.

For example, my empowered mother took me to the A. K. Harper Memorial Library in Maryville, Tennessee, when I was 3 years old in order to get my library card. "Mrs.?Alexander," the librarian said to her, "we don't give library cards to 3-year-olds." "Well, you should," she said to them. And they did.

So on this anniversary for the congressional enactment of transforming and empowering ideas, there should be more hope than despair. We still have most of the world’s great universities. They still attract most of the brightest students from everywhere, insourcing brainpower and creating wealth.

According to a recent Harvard School of Business survey of 10,000 of its alumni on U.S. competitiveness, if you are in business in this country, it is still hard to beat America's entrepreneurial environment, proximity to customers, low levels of corruption, access to skilled labor, safety for people and property, and protection of intellectual property.

We have a remarkable system of government created by geniuses that many countries struggle to emulate. So why not celebrate this anniversary by taking steps to ensure that 25 or 50 or 100 years from now we have even more of the greatest universities in the world?

Let me read exactly what Australia's Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, a friend of the United States, said in his speech in April:

America could be one budget deal away, in the context of economic recovery, one budget deal away from banishing the notion of American declinism. Think about that, one budget deal, an exercise of statesmanship up the road, in the context of an economic bounce-back and all of a sudden, with energy independence crystallizing, with technological innovation, resurgence of American manufacturing, people who spoke about American decline could be revising their thesis.

So as we celebrate the transforming legislation of 150 years ago, why not take the advice of our friend from Australia? Why not take advantage of our opportunity at the end of this year to enact a budget that will reassert Americans' preeminence in the world?

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