Monday, May 7, 2012

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Turns 150

As part of my "day" job, I work with my counterparts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a variety of agricultural trade issues.  A couple weeks ago when sitting in a conference room over at USDA's Whitten Building, I noticed a poster proclaiming the 150th anniversary of the department.  This is one of those rare times where my full-time career intersects with my interest in the Civil War era, and I felt compelled to dig a little deeper.
President Abraham Lincoln, who grew up on family farms in Kentucky and Indiana, was no stranger to agriculture.  In a speech given to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society the year before he was elected President, Lincoln called for increased productivity on small farms and extolled the virtues of agricultural technology.  He also stressed the value of education to farmers.  As Lincoln told the Society, "no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture."  The Republican Party at the time favored several measures to promote agriculture, including the adoption of a homestead act to encourage the settlement and farming of western lands.  These ideas reflected the free labor and free land policies of Lincoln's party.

In his annual message to Congress on December 3, 1861, Lincoln advocated the creation of a bureau or department of agriculture within the government.  As he told Congress, with a bit of humor thrown in for good measure:
Agriculture, confessedly the largest interest of the nation, has not a department nor a bureau, but a clerkship only, assigned to it in the Government. While it is fortunate that this great interest is so independent in its nature as to not have demanded and extorted more from the Government, I respectfully ask Congress to consider whether something more can not be given voluntarily with general advantage.  (in Rasmussen.)
In response to Lincoln's call, Congress passed passed "An Act to Establish a Department of Agriculture."  Lincoln signed the bill into law on May 15, 1862.  The new department had a broad mandate "to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants."  Congress designated a Commissioner of Agriculture to serve as the "chief executive officer" of the department.  The Commissioner was to be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  Lincoln selected Isaac Newton as the first Commissioner of Agriculture.

Isaac Newton, first Commissioner of Agriculture (courtesy of Abraham Lincoln's White House).  Newton, a farmer originally from New Jersey, was serving as the chief clerk of the Bureau of Agriculture in the Patent Office when Lincoln appointed him to the new post.  Newton was instrumental in establishing a national agricultural library.  
In the coming days and weeks, Congress adopted other agriculture-related legislation.  Southern states had defeated previous attempts to pass a homestead law in the 1850s out of fears that such legislation would favor western settlement by small farmers without slaves. The secession of the Southern states changed the political dynamic and paved the way for the passage of homesteading legislation by Congress.  Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862.  The law provided for the grant of 160 acres of public land to eligible heads of household or individuals who were at least 21 years of age.  The recipients could gain title after five years on the condition that they made improvements to the land.  The law also established a purchase option for those who resided on the land for six months and made improvements.  Moreover, only U.S. citizens, or intended citizens, who had "never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies" were eligible.

The Homestead Act entered into effect on January 1, 1863.  By the middle of 1864, the government had distributed over 1.2 million acres west of the Mississippi River.  (Wagner, Gallagher & Finkelman 678.)  These newly-settled lands contributed to expanded agricultural production in the North.  Unfortunately, the implementation of the act was marked by fraud and speculation, and only 80 million of 500 million acres distributed by the Federal government between 1862 and 1904 actually went to homesteaders.  ("Homestead Act (1862),"

Lincoln also signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act into law on July 2, 1862.  Sponsored by Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont, the new law embodied the notion that higher education should be available to the masses.  Each state received a grant of 30,000 acres of federal land for each Representative and Senator.  The states were required to use the proceeds from the sale of this land to create and finance colleges for agriculture and engineering.  Section 6 provided that "[n]o State while in a condition of rebellion or insurrection against the government" could benefit from the act. 

The flurry of agriculture-related legislative activity in spring and summer of 1862 shows that even in the midst of Civil War, Lincoln and Congress carried on the normal business of government and took steps to implement their vision for the country's future.  In fact, the three acts had long-ranging consequences.  The Department of Agriculture was eventually designated as a cabinet-level department in 1889 and today has sweeping responsibilities in a large number of areas, including nutrition, food safety, plant and animal health, international trade, and assistance for farmers.  Although far from an unmitigated success, the Homestead Act helped to stimulate the continued settlement of the West.  The Morrill Act is probably one of the most important pieces of educational legislation in U.S. history.   The law led to the current-day system of state universities and colleges.  Many institutions of higher education, such as Iowa State University, Michigan State University, and Cornell University, represent the living legacy of the 1862 law.

USDA has put together a stellar collection of documents for its 150th anniversary.  The department's main gateway page can be found here, but the best resources are available on the National Agricultural Library page entitled "Abraham Lincoln and Agriculture."  This site has a remarkable collection of materials about Lincoln and his views on agriculture and farming.  Visitors to the site can find a myriad of interesting documents, including Lincoln's 1859 speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society and copies of yearly agricultural reports from 1862-65.


This post is in part based on the documents available at the "Abraham Lincoln and Agriculture" website, including "Lincoln's Agricultural Legacy" by Wayne D. Rasmussen.  Other useful sources include:

"Homestead Act (1862)," (on-line initiative of National History Day, National Archives, & USA Freedom Corps); "Morrill Act (1862),"; National Archives, "Teaching With Documents: The Homestead Act of 1862," National Park Service, Homestead National Monument of America, "About the Homestead Act;" USDA, Map of 1862 Land Grant Universities and Colleges; Margaret E. Wagner, Gary W. Gallagher, & Paul Finkelman (eds.), The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (2002).

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