May 15, 1862 – President Lincoln Establishes US Department of Agriculture

There were a number of precursors to the Department of Agriculture, including a division of the U.S. Patent Office established by Congress on March 3, 1839 (5 Stat. 354) for “the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes.”

According to the USPO’s online history:

The grounds around the Patent Office were used as the garden to grow the nation’s living plant collection. For plants that were not winter-hardy in the Washington, D.C., area, two 50-foot long greenhouses were constructed. In 1849, however, the land that the greenhouses and garden occupied was needed for an expansion of the Patent Office Building. Congress appropriated $5,000 to relocate the greenhouses and garden to a site on the National Mall just west of the Capitol. This new and improved garden opened in 1856 and was known as the U.S. Propagation Garden.”

By the 1860s, the Agricultural Section of the Patent Office was annually distributing over 2.4 million packages of seed from the basement of Patent Office Building.

Lincoln in 1862

Today’s U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online library reminds readers that Abraham Lincoln was a strong advocate of farming and agricultural improvement, which intersected with his belief in the uplifting properties of compensated labor (as opposed to slavery):

Lincoln . . . 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.’”

Moreover, at that time, nearly half of all Americans lived on farms, and there was an increasing need to consolidate information and promote agricultural resources.

Thus Lincoln asked for a separate Department of Agriculture. It was authorized by Congress and the enabling legislation was signed by Lincoln on this day in history. A Commissioner of Agriculture was authorized “to receive & have charge of all property of the Agricultural Division of the Patent Office including fixtures & property of Propagating Garden” and to appoint a statistician, chemist, entomologist, and botanist.

You can read the text of the 1862 Act to Establish a Department of Agriculture here.

The newly founded USDA was still housed in the basement of the Patent Office until 1868, when it moved into its own building on 20 acres just east of the Washington Monument.

The first Department of Agriculture Building on the National Mall around 1895

In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed separate bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was defeated in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, in 1889 the Department of Agriculture was given cabinet-level status.

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