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.

May 22, 1849 – Abraham Lincoln Receives a Patent

On this day in history, Abraham Lincoln received a patent for a flotation device to lift riverboats stuck on sandbars. The idea was never developed, but Lincoln remains the only U.S. president to hold a patent.

Lincoln conceived the idea after twice traveling on boats that got hung up on obstructions. The original documentation of this patent was rediscovered in 1997. The device called for large bellows attached to the sides of a boat that were expandable by virtue of air chambers.

An online Abraham Lincoln site notes:

Lincoln displayed a lifelong fascination with mechanical things. William H. Herndon, his last law partner, attributed this to his father, saying, ‘he evinced a decided bent toward machinery or mechanical appliances, a trait he doubtless inherited from his father who was himself something of a mechanic and therefore skilled in the use of tools.’

Henry Whitney, another lawyer friend of Lincoln’s, recalled ‘While we were traveling in ante-railway days, on the circuit, and would stop at a farm-house for dinner, Lincoln would improve the leisure in hunting up some farming implement, machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over, first generally and then critically.’”

Before he became president, Lincoln delivered lectures on discoveries and inventions. In 1858, in several speeches, he observed:

Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship. This improvement, he effects by Discoveries, and Inventions..”

He praised patent laws in these speeches. Before such laws, as he said,

…any man might instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”

May 20, 1862 – Congress Passes the Homestead Act, Allowing Adults to Claim 160 Acres of Land from the Public Domain

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on this day, May 20, 1862 following the secession of the southern states. The act turned over 270 million acres of land to private citizens. Ten percent of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.

Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, politicians had pursued efforts to raise revenues from land sales, but with mixed results. Southerners resisted any efforts to fill the west with individual farmers rather than slave-holders.

The Republicans were strong enough by 1859 to push an act through Congress, but Democratic president James Buchanan vetoed the measure. However, the war and secession of the South soon removed all obstacles to the bill.

As the National Park Service explains:

A homesteader had only to be the head of a household or at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women and formerly enslaved people worked to meet the challenge of ‘proving up’ and keeping this ‘free land.’ Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, make improvements and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to ‘prove up.’”

When all requirements had been completed and the homesteader was ready the take legal possession, the homesteader found two neighbors or friends willing to vouch for the truth of his or her statements about the land’s improvements and sign the ‘proof’ document, and pay a small filing fee.

A photo of a family’s cabin on their homestead, 1900, via Digital Public Library of America

The Homestead Act remained in effect until it was repealed by the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which stated “public lands be retained in Federal ownership.” Provisions for homesteading in Alaska remained in force however until 1986.

The Government granted more than 270 million acres of land while the law was in force, although this represented only about three percent of the lands west of the Mississippi. This measure was far less effective in making vacant land productive than liberal mining laws and grants to railroads.

Today, the Homestead National Monument of America outside Beatrice, Nebraska, commemorates the Homestead Act. This is where Daniel Freeman, deemed the first homesteader to file a claim (on Jan. 1, 1863) by the Department of the Interior, established his homestead site. A history website on the Homestead Act observes, “Legend has it that Daniel Freeman filed his claim 10 minutes after midnight at the Land Office in Brownville, NE on January 1, 1863, the first day the Homestead Act went into effect.”

Daniel Freeman – 1906
NPS Image

April 12, 1777 – American Statesman Henry Clay is born

Henry Clay, born on this day in history, was an American attorney and statesman who represented Kentucky in both the Senate and House. He was the seventh House Speaker and the ninth Secretary of State. He ran for president in the 1824, 1832, and 1844 elections. For his role in defusing sectional crises, he earned the appellation of the “Great Compromiser” and was part of the “Great Triumvirate.” (The Great Triumvirate refers to three statesmen who dominated American politics for much of the first half of the 19th century: Henry Clay of Kentucky, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina.) All three were extremely active in politics, served at various times as Secretary of State and served together in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.)

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Henry Clay is still known by many Americans today because of his influence on Abraham Lincoln, who said of Clay: “I worshiped him as a teacher and leader.” Indeed, Lincoln not only emulated Clay’s devotion to the idea of Union in theory, but also in its specifics: he tried to push through many of the programs advocated by Clay, including the “American System” – internal improvements consisting of a network of roads, bridges, and canals linking every state and territory. Clay thought such an investment not only made good economic sense; it would also help bind the nation together. Trade between different regions of the country, as well as the movement of populations among them would create interdependency, and help cement the disparate sectors into a true Union.

Unfortunately, the South was opposed to the American System proposal. As the author writes:

“By restricting the extent and ease of transportation, planters could keep blacks and poor whites in their thrall indefinitely. The American System threatened the future of slavery and the wealth of the southern oligarchy by opening the South to transportation, commerce, education, ideas, competition, and emancipation.”

It also would open the way to better escape routes for slaves.

It should be noted that Clay himself owned slaves, although he helped establish and became president in 1816 of the American Colonization Society, a group that wanted to establish a colony for free American blacks in Africa. The group founded Monrovia, a city in present-day Liberia, for that purpose. [Lincoln was similarly in favor throughout most of his life of colonization for slaves.] Clay decried slavery as “a great evil,” but thought that universal emancipation would produce “civil war, carnage, conflagration, devastation . . .” [Clay thought the war would be between the two races, rather than between the whites of the North and the South.]

Henry Clay Later in Life

Clay was elected to the post of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives on November 4, 1811. The seventh Speaker in the nation’s history, he was the youngest man, and the only freshman ever to hold the office. The author calls him “the greatest Speaker of the House of Representatives in American history.”

Clay had the misfortune to have an implacable enemy in the form of the very powerful Andrew Jackson, who came to revile Clay for, inter alia, denying him (as Jackson saw it) his rightful prize as U.S. President in the election of 1824. With the vote split, Clay directed his supporters to vote for John Quincy Adams. When Adams won the election, Adams offered Clay the position of Secretary of State. Both men denied any quid pro quo, and indeed, Adams had plenty of reason to want Clay in this position in any event. But the Jackson forces took vicious aim at both men, calling the appointment a “corrupt bargain” that denied the office to the man who truly deserved it, i.e., Jackson. Jackson’s adherents never let the nation forget it, and Clay was thus repeatedly stymied in his own attempts to become U.S. President.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

Nevertheless, Clay’s contributions to the nation were not minimal. Time after time he exercised his influence over Congress to forge compromises between the Northern and Southern factions, always in the name of Union. When he died, on July 29, 1852, the editor of the Washington D.C. newspaper “National Intelligencer” wrote: “He knew no North; he knew no South. He knew nothing but his country.”

Lincoln exclaimed upon learning of Clay’s death: “Alas! Who can realize that Henry Clay is dead! Who can realize, that the workings of that mighty mind have ceased . . . that freedom’s champion – the champion of a civilized world . . . has indeed fallen.”

October 24, 1861 – First Transcontinental Telegraph Message

On October 24, 1861 – this day in history – the first transcontinental telegraph system was completed by Western Union, making it possible to transmit messages from coast to coast. Telegraph lines had previously existed only as far west as St. Joseph, Missouri. Beginning in July, 1861, work was undertaken to extend the line to Sacramento, California.

On the evening the system was completed, the first transcontinental telegraph message was sent by Chief Justice Stephen J. Field of California from San Francisco to President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C.

President Lincoln used the telegraph extensively during the Civil War, and as ThoughtCo points out, this marked the first time in history a commander in chief could communicate, practically in real time, with his commanders.

There were other important repercussions as well.

As the Library of Congress notes:

This technological advance, pioneered by inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, heralded the end of the Pony Express. Only two days later, on October 26, the horseback mail service that had previously provided the fastest means of communication between the eastern and western United States officially closed.”

Early telegraph machine, via Virginia Museum of History & Culture

September 18, 1858 – 4th Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Which Lincoln Clarifies His Position on Race

Approximately 12,000 people attended the 4th Lincoln-Douglas Debate, held in Charleston, Illinois.

Lincoln began by clarifying his views on race, in answer to charges Douglas made previously that Lincoln favored racial equality (anathema to the audience).

Lincoln and Douglas in 1858

Lincoln’s opening, in which he clarifies his position on race and slavery, cringe-worthy though it is, is worth quoting extensively. (And in fairness, it should be noted that Lincoln’s feelings about race evolved as time went on.)

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN:

. . . I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing.

I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes.

I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. . . . I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject,) that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.]

I will add one further word, which is this: that I do not understand that there is any place where an alteration of the social and political relations of the negro and the white man can be made except in the State Legislature-not in the Congress of the United States-and as I do not really apprehend the approach of any such thing myself, and as Judge Douglas seems to be in constant horror that some such danger is rapidly approaching, I propose as the best means to prevent it that the Judge be kept at home and placed in the State Legislature to fight the measure. [Uproarious laughter and applause.] I do not propose dwelling longer at this time on this subject.”

You can read his entire remarks here.

August 30, 1861 – Civil War Union General John C. Frémont Issues an Emancipation Proclamation for Missouri; Lincoln Rescinds It

The U.S. Senate passed the First Confiscation Act on August 5, 1861 allowing the federal government to seize property, including slaves, being used to support the Confederate rebellion. Although President Lincoln feared that the act might push the border states to secede, he signed the act into law the next day. When, however, Union General John C. Frémont took the additional step, on his own initiative, to issue a proclamation freeing all slaves in Missouri that belonged to secessionists, Lincoln drew the line. In a letter dated September 11 (text here), Lincoln ordered Fremont to change his proclamation to conform to the First Confiscation Act.

“Maj. Genl. John C. Fremont, 1861” via Missouri History Museum

As the site “Mr. Lincoln and Freedom” points out:

At the beginning of the Civil War, emancipation was not a popular sentiment among Union Army officers.” Moreover, as indicated above, Lincoln considered it essential not to alienate the border states in any way that would drive them from the Union.”

In May of the following year, Union General David Hunter issued a similar proclamation freeing slaves in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Again, Lincoln was forced to issue a public statement revoking the proclamation. As in the previous instance he disavowed advance knowledge of the measure, declaring:

I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, proclaim and declare, that the government of the United States, had no knowledge, information, or belief, of an intention on the part of General Hunter to issue such a proclamation; nor has it yet, any authentic information that the document is genuine–  And further, that neither General Hunter, nor any other commander, or person, has been authorized by the Government of the United States, to make proclamations declaring the slaves of any State free; and that the supposed proclamation, now in question, whether genuine or false, is altogether void, so far as respects such declaration.”

Lincoln, February 9, 1861

He concluded his statement, however, by urging the slave-holding border states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri to “‘adopt a gradual abolishment of slavery,'” as encouraged by Congress’s Joint Resolution of March 1862:

You can not if you would, be blind to the signs of the times — I beg of you a calm and enlarged consideration of them, ranging, if it may be, far above personal and partizan politics — This proposal makes common cause for a common object, casting no reproach upon any — It acts not the pharisee. The change it contemplates would come gently as the dews of heaven, not rending or wrecking anything — Will you not embrace it? So much good has not been done, by one effort, in all past time, as, in the providence of God, it is now your high previlege [sic] to do — May the vast future not have to lament that you have neglected it.”

August 26 – National Dog Day & Presidential Dogs in History

August 26 is National Dog Day, a holiday to celebrate dogs and all that they do for us, and to welcome those in need into our lives through animal rescue.

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It is also a day to acknowledge presidential dogs, those pets that humanize the leaders of the United States. (As President Harry S. Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”)

Fido, born around 1855, was Abraham Lincoln’s dog. Residents of Springfield remembered seeing Lincoln walk to the local market with Fido trailing behind carrying a parcel in his mouth.

Picture of Fido from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Picture of Fido from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

When Lincoln was elected president, he decided not to take Fido to Washington, because he was worried the dog would not survive the long train ride. Instead, he gave Fido to two neighbor boys, John and Frank Roll, who promised to take good care of him. Lincoln even gave the Roll family the Lincolns’ horsehair sofa, so that Fido would feel more at home. Shortly before leaving Springfield, the Lincolns took Fido to a photography studio to take his picture.

After Lincoln was assassinated, the Rolls brought Fido to Lincoln’s home to greet the mourners. Fido died less than a year later.

But Lincoln was not without pets in the White House. Secretary of State William Seward gave him two kittens, which he named Tabby and Dixie.

Laddie Boy was the first “celebrity” White House pet. Laddie Boy, President Warren G. Harding’s Airedale terrier, was the first to receive regular coverage from newspaper reporters.

Laddie Boy came to the White House when he was seven months old, on March 5, 1921, the day after Harding took office. Laddie Boy not only went to most cabinet meetings, but he had his very own hand-carved chair on which to sit. Harding loved dogs and he used Laddie Boy to demonstrate his connection to the average person.

Laddie Boy had an official portrait. (Library of Congress)

Laddie Boy’s popularity with reporters was so great they often quoted him in pretend interviews. Smithsonian Magazine reports that Laddie Boy was so beloved nationwide that the Newsboys’ Association asked every newspaper delivery boy in the country to donate one penny to a special fund to build a statue of Laddie Boy. In all, nineteen thousand one hundred thirty-four pennies were collected and melted down. Laddie Boy’s likeness, made from the copper in the pennies, still stands in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Most amusingly, Laddie Boy had a troublesome brother, just like many presidents have had. The New York Times of July 30, 1921 reported that “Dickie Boy” appeared in a Denver court for killing chickens.

Fala, a Scottish Terrier, was Franklin Roosevelt’s dog, and one of the most famous presidential pets. Given to the Roosevelts by a cousin, the dog and his White House antics were mentioned frequently by the media and often referenced by Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. According to the National Archives:

1940 Photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with his dog Fala at a picnic on “Sunset Hill” near Pine Plains, NY. Fala is four months old.

Secret Service agents called Fala ‘The Informer’ because, during secret wartime presidential trips, the dog was instantly recognized while out on his walks. But this celebrity was put to good use in 1941 when Fala was named national president of Barkers for Britain.”

Barkers for Britain was created as a way for dog lovers to support the nationwide Bundles for Britain program, which collected cash contributions and donations of clothing, blankets, and other basic necessities for the British people fighting in WWII.

Fala survived Roosevelt by seven years and was buried near him. A statue of Fala beside Roosevelt is featured in Washington, D.C.’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the only presidential pet so honored.

Dwight Eisenhower’s dog, Heidi, was evicted from the White House by Mamie Eisenhower after having an accident on an expensive rug in the diplomatic reception room. The damage could not be fully removed. Mamie banished Heidi to the Eisenhower farm in Gettysburg.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower walks by Heidi, his Weimaraner, as he returns to the White House after a press conference on March 11, 1959, at the Executive Office Building. Photo courtesy Dwight D. Eisenhower Library Center.

Millie, the dog belonging to Barbara and George H. Bush, wrote her own best-selling book, giving a dog’s-eye perspective on what goes on in the White House.

Barbara Bush with Millie

Some Happy Dog/President Combinations

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George W. Bush's dogs, Barney (bottom) and Spot (top) step off Marine One on the south lawn of the White House. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

George W. Bush’s dogs, Barney (bottom) and Spot (top) step off Marine One on the south lawn of the White House. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

The Obamas' dog, holding a press conference

The Obamas’ dog, holding a press conference

Not all presidents have had dogs; some had other pets. John Quincy Adams kept an alligator in his bathtub, for example. It was a gift from Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Sources report that Adams enjoyed showing the scary-looking animal off to disbelieving White House visitors for several months before it moved to a different home. Apparently Herbert Hoover also hosted alligators for a while; his son Allan had a pair, and they sometimes crawled around the White House grounds. He was, however, more partial to his dog King Tut.

President Herbert Hoover poses with his dog, King Tut, a Belgian shepherd. Circa 1928 photo courtesy Herbert E. French, Library of Congress.

William Henry Harrison had a goat and a cow. A number of presidents had cats, including William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson. But the majority did have dogs.

You can learn more about White House pets at the Presidential Pet Museum, here.

Happy National Dog Day!!

August 21, 1858 – Lincoln Mocks Douglas Over Concept of Judicial Supremacy When Morality is at Stake

The first debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place in Ottawa, Illinois on this date in history, August 21, 1858. Lincoln addressed the subject of slavery, and averred that:

. . . . if we could arrest the spread, and place it where Washington and Jefferson and Madison placed it, it would be in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind would, as for eighty years past, believe that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. The crisis would be past, and the institution might be let alone for a hundred years—if it should live so long — in the States where it exists, yet it would be going out of existence in the way best for both the black and the white races.”

But Douglas, he charges, wanted to make slavery national. Lincoln said:

This man sticks to a decision which forbids the people of a Territory to exclude slavery, and he does so not because he says it is right in itself—he does not give any opinion on that—but because it has been decided by the court, and, being decided by the court, he is, and you are, bound to take it in your political action as law — not that he judges at all of its merits, but because a decision of the court is to him a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ He places it on that ground alone, and you will bear in mind that thus committing himself unreservedly to this decision, commits himself on account of the merit or demerit of the decision, but it is a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ The next decision, as much as this, will be a ‘Thus saith the Lord.’ There is nothing that can divert or turn him away from this decision. It is nothing that I point out to him that his great prototype, General Jackson, did not believe in the binding force of decisions. It is nothing to him that Jefferson did not so believe.”

Lincoln and Douglas

He could not “shake Judge Douglas’s tooth loose” from the Dred Scott decision, Lincoln said. “I can not divert him from it. He hangs to the last to the Dred Scott decision.”

And what are the consequences of this strict adherence to the finding of the Supreme Court, no matter what morality demands? Lincoln:

When he invites any people, willing to have slavery, to establish it, he is blowing out the moral lights around us. When he says he ‘cares not whether slavery is voted down or voted up’ — that it is a sacred right of self-government — he is, in my judgment, penetrating the human soul and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people.”

July 17, 1862 – During the Civil War, Congress Approved the Second Confiscation Act, Relating to Slaves of Captured Confederates

During the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed two “Confiscation Acts” relating to the fate of slaves that made their way to Union lines.

The Confiscation Act of 1861, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on August 6, 1861, authorized the confiscation of any Confederate property by Union forces (“property” included slaves).

The Confiscation Act of 1862, passed on July 17, 1862, this day in history, stated that any Confederate official, military or civilian, who did not surrender within 60 days of the act’s passage would have their slaves freed in criminal proceedings. However, this act was only applicable to Confederate areas that had already been occupied by the Union Army.

Lincoln in 1862

Though U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was concerned about the practical legality of these acts, and believed that they might push the border states towards siding with the Confederacy, he nonetheless signed them to make them law. The growing movement towards emancipation was aided by these acts, which eventually led to the Preliminary Emancipation Act of September, 1862, and the Final Emancipation Proclamation of January, 1863.