Written by Wayne D. Rasmussen and published with kind consent of the USDA National Agricultural Library
On May 15, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing “at the seat of Government of the United States a Department of Agriculture.” Two and one-half years later, in what was to be his last annual message to the Congress, Lincoln said: “The Agricultural Department, under the supervision of its present energetic and faithful head, is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is precisely the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned that in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.”
Lincoln’s own background was the pioneer farming and rural life typical of the outer edge of America’s westward-moving frontier. His early years were spent on farms characterized by pioneer exploitation rather than by settled cultivation. The 300-acre tract in central Kentucky on which his loghut birthplace stood was too poor to be called a farm. As a boy, he lived on a 30-acre farm. Because of hills and gullies only 14 acres could be cultivated.
In 1816, the Lincoln family moved to southern Indiana to 160 acres of marshy land. After 7 years, Lincoln’s father had 10 acres of corn, 5 of wheat, and 2 of oats in cultivation. The young boy was hired out to do general farm work, to split rails, and to work on a ferry boat. In 1830, the family moved to land along the Sangamon River in Illinois. Soon afterward, Lincoln left the family and began life for himself.
This farm background, on what was then the western frontier, and his years as a country lawyer made Lincoln, during the 1850’s, a representative of the frontier, the farmer, and small town democracy. On September 30, 1859, Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society at its annual fair in Milwaukee. This was the only extended discussion of agriculture he ever made. He began by praising agricultural fairs as a means of bringing people together. However, the main purpose of the fair was to aid in improving agriculture.
Lincoln spoke of the desirability of substituting horsedrawn machines for hand power, and the potential usefulness of steam plows. He urged more intensive cultivation in order to increase production to the full capacity of the soil. This would require the better use of available labor. Lincoln contrasted “mud sill” and free labor, identifying “mud sill” laborers as slaves or hired laborers who were fixed in that situation. Free laborers, who had the opportunity to become landowners, were more productive than the “mud sill” workers.
Free labor could achieve its highest potential if workers were educated. As Lincoln put it: “…no other human occupation opens so wide a field for the profitable and agreeable combination of labor with cultivated thought, as agriculture.” His endorsement of education and his belief that farmers’ interests were of primary importance indicated Lincoln’s interest in agricultural reform. After saying that farmers were neither better nor worse than other people, Lincoln continued: “But farmers, being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest. It also follows that that interest is most worthy of all to be cherished and cultivated — that if there be inevitable conflict between that interest and any other, that other should yield.”
When the Republican Party nominated Lincoln in 1860, two of the planks in the party platform were in accordance with ideas that had been advocated by westerners for many years. The first was the demand for a homestead measure. The second was advocacy of Federal aid for construction of a railroad to the Pacific Ocean. Two other proposals which had been advocated for many years — grants of Federal land for founding of colleges to teach agriculture and engineering and the establishment of a federal Department of Agriculture — were not mentioned in the platform. However, all four of the proposals were enacted into law in 1862.
The first of the measures to become law established the Department of Agriculture. In his first annual message to Congress on December 3, 1861, Lincoln said: “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…. While I make no suggestions as to details, I venture the opinion that an agricultural and statistical bureau might profitably be organized.” Instead of a bureau, Congress established a Department to be headed by a Commissioner. The act was so broadly conceived that it has remained the basic authority for the Department to the present time.
The Homestead Act, approved by the President on May 20, 1862, provided for giving 160 acres of the public domain to any American or prospective citizen who was the head of a family or over 21 years of age. Title to the land was issued after the settler had resided on it for five years and made improvements on it. The settler could also gain title by residing on the claim for six months, improving the land, and paying $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act did not achieve all that its proponents had hoped, but it stood as a symbol of American democracy and opportunity to native-born and immigrant alike.
The act granting western land and making payments for the construction of the Union Pacific-Central Pacific railroad was signed by Lincoln on July 1, 1862. The two sections of the railroad joined at Promontory Summit, thirty-two miles west of Brigham City, Utah, on May 10, 1869. This completed a rail connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific and opened new areas of the West to settlement. The Morrill Land Grant College Act, donating public land to the States for colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts, became law on July 2, 1862. Every State accepted the terms of the act and established one or more such institutions.
After President Lincoln signed the bill establishing the Department of Agriculture on May 15, 1862, he received much unsolicited advice, particularly in the columns of the farm press, on the appointment of the first Commissioner of Agriculture. Some urged the appointment of a distinguished scientist, others an outstanding “practical” man. A few periodical editors were certain that one of their number would be the best choice. However, Lincoln turned to Isaac Newton, a farmer who had served as chief of the agricultural section of the Patent Office since August 1861.
Newton was born in Burlington County, New Jersey. He grew up on a farm, and after completing his commonschool education, became a farmer in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Newton was a successful, progressive manager, whose farms were regarded as models. He also developed a pioneer dairy lunch in Philadelphia and a select butter trade as outlets for his farm products. Newton sent butter each week to the White House; and he and his family maintained a close friendship with the Lincolns. Subsequently, Lincoln gave him full support in managing the Department.
In his first annual report, Newton outlined objectives for the Department. These were: (1) Collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information; (2) Introducing valuable plants and animals; (3) Answering inquiries of farmers regarding agriculture; (4) Testing agricultural implements; (5) Conducting chemical analyses of soils, grains, fruits, plants, vegetables, and manures; (6) Establishing a professorship of botany and entomology; and (7) Establishing an agricultural library and museum. These objectives were similar to the charges given the Department by the Congress in its legislation establishing the new agency.
Newton, during the nearly five years he served as Commissioner, made progress in achieving these objectives. The basis for a library existed in the book and journal collection of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office. This collection, comprising about 1,000 volumes, was transferred to the new Department. Appropriations for library material began in 1864. The first librarian of record was Aaron Burt Grosh, a clergyman. Little is known of his library work. He is best remembered as one of the founders of the National Grange.
Although Lincoln’s primary problem during his Presidency was preserving the Union, the agricultural legislation that he signed was to transform American farming.
By Wayne D. Rasmussen
Chief, Agricultural History Branch (retired 1986) United States Department of Agriculture