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Focus on Agriculture

For the week of April 23, 2012

150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Legacy to Agriculture

By Stewart Truelsen

Biographers and historians have written more about Abraham Lincoln than any other American president but never seem to pay much attention to his influence on American agriculture. If they are ever going to recognize his contributions, this would be an appropriate time.

One-hundred fifty years ago in 1862, the 37th Congress passed, and the president signed, three laws of great importance to agriculture. They were an act to establish a Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant Act. The department did not immediately attain cabinet level status; that came more than two decades later.

It was Lincoln who referred to the Department of Agriculture as “The People’s Department.” He undoubtedly called it that because half of the nation’s people were farmers. Recently the term has been misused by some to try to subordinate the needs of farmers and ranchers.

Before becoming president, Lincoln told a farm audience in Milwaukee, Wis., that farmers were neither better nor worse than other people, and added, “But farmers being the most numerous class, it follows that their interest is the largest interest.”

The Homestead Act to open up the West had been a platform plank of the fledgling Republican Party. It allowed a citizen to file for 160 acres of public land. All he had to do was pay a nominal fee, improve the land and settle there for five years.

The Morrill Act gave the states federal lands to establish land-grant colleges which formed a higher education framework for the nation and became centers of agricultural learning. After the Civil War, the act was extended to the Southern states.

Lincoln was raised on the frontier by parents who had limited success farming. He understood the importance of farmers obtaining knowledge to farm better. In fact, Lincoln thought farming was an ideal occupation for the “combination of labor with cultivated thought.”

“Every blade of grass is a study;” he said, “and to produce two where there was but one, is both a profit and a pleasure.” Those feelings still ring true with farmers today.

If Lincoln needed another reason for the federal government to promote and encourage the success of American agriculture, he could have found it in the disastrous Irish Potato Famine that began in the summer of 1845. A million Irish died from the famine and millions more emigrated, many to America and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois.

The Irish famine may have impressed upon the president and other political leaders of his day the importance of having a stable, diverse food supply and the knowledge to produce enough food for a rapidly growing nation.

In any event, the laws signed 150 years ago transformed American agriculture, setting it on a course to become the envy of the rest of the world. It is only because Lincoln’s legacy is so large that we seldom recognize this part of it.


Stewart Truelsen is a regular contributor to the Focus on Agriculture series and is the author of a book marking the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 90th anniversary, Forward Farm Bureau.