This significant late-nineteenth-century senator lived in a Washington mansion that the architect of the Capitol designed specially for him. Renowned Capitol artist Constantino Brumidi decorated the ceiling of his drawing room. Every 14th of April, that ornate salon on Thomas Circle echoed to the merriment of the senator’s birthday party, a highlight of Washington’s spring social season. His portrait, which today hangs outside the Senate Chamber, captures the thoughtful image of a man to whom his colleagues in the 1890s accorded their ultimate term of respect: “Father of the Senate.”
Justin Morrill was born in Stafford, Vermont in 1810. At age 15, he ended his formal schooling to become a storekeeper. Shrewd and hardworking, Morrill built a successful retail business, gaining the financial independence that allowed him to retire at age 38. He turned to politics and, in 1854, won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Morrill flourished in the House as a skilled behind-the-scenes negotiator and expert on the nation’s financial affairs. During the Civil War, as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he shaped legislation that created the nation’s first income tax.
The Vermonter’s greatest contribution during his 12 years in the House was the 1862 Land-Grant College Act. Sensitive about his own lack of educational opportunities, he pioneered a program that dedicated revenues from the sale of 17 million acres of federal lands to establish public institutions of higher education in every state.
In 1867, Morrill began the first of six terms in the Senate. By the time of his death on December 28, 1898, he had served in Congress a record-setting 44 years and had chaired the Senate Finance Committee for 17 years—a record that still stands
As chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Buildings, Morrill guided legislation for construction of the Capitol Building’s west front terrace, the Executive Office Building, and the unfinished portion of the Washington Monument. It was his idea to convert the old House chamber into a national statuary hall.
Justin Morrill’s greatest construction legacy was the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which opened a year before he died. In his eulogy, a Senate colleague suggested honoring this singular representative and senator with a plaque in the new library’s Great Hall. That proposal languished until 1997. On the occasion of the library building’s centennial, Vermont’s two senators at last implemented this most appropriate honor.