USDA Prime Time

NOTE: Originally appeared on May 15

Today, the next-to-next-to last progressive Republican president, a fellow with big ears, signed the documents creating the Department of Agriculture:

On May 15, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln established the independent Department of Agriculture to be headed by a Commissioner without Cabinet status. Lincoln called it the “people’s department.” In the 1880s, varied advocacy groups were lobbying for Cabinet representation. Business interests sought a Department of Commerce and Industry, and farmers tried to raise the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet rank. In 1887, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills giving Cabinet status to the Department of Agriculture and Labor, but the bill was killed in conference committee after farm interests objected to the addition of labor. Finally, on February 9, 1889, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law elevating the Department of Agriculture to Cabinet level. [Wikipedia]

Lincoln, minus the Civil War, managed to carry out a pretty progressive policy of “wealth redistribution,” and infrastructure improvements, having promised these in his campaign, the Homestead Act was passed, the Transcontinental Railroad founded and subsidized, land-grant colleges, like, say the University of Iowa (the first). Wikipedia:

The [1860 Republican] party platform clearly stated that slavery would not be allowed to spread any further; this statement was made in the platform’s due process plank. The platform also promised that tariffs protecting industry would be imposed, a Homestead Act granting free farmland in the West to settlers, and the funding of a transcontinental railroad. All of these provisions were highly unpopular in the South.

This is, perhaps, apocryphal and not necessarily long for Wikipedia’s quality control, but, in the same piece:

In 1849, the Patent Office was transferred to the newly created Department of the Interior. In the ensuing years, agitation for a separate bureau of agriculture within the department or a separate department devoted to agriculture kept recurring.

The USDA was created by Abraham Lincoln in order to help out the United States economy

Which, while true, cannot be stated as such by any self-respecting historian or academic. We have achieved a level of rhetorical dissimulation that Lincoln would have appreciated, with the Southern Papers adopting the same tone and ofttimes rhetoric — as the Wingnut Blogosmear™ adopts today.*

[* (See the Richmond Daily Dispatch  “Virginia’s wealth, power and influence rest upon her slave systemfor tone and argumentation in defense of the indefensible.]

The problem with the Department of the Interior was that it rapidly and near-continually became a hotbed of corruption, influence-peddling and wholesale looting of the people’s natural resources. For instance, circa 2000, the Brothers Koch paid the largest single fine ever levied ($25 million) for corporate malfeasance, having reported only half of the oil they pumped from Federal and Indian lands under a contract to … well, you got it.

A “popular” group in Wisconsin’s Walker recall defense today, as well

At the time, agriculture was the life blood of the nation, and there were virtually no Americans who were not within one degree of separation from the agricultural enterprises of the nation. Without agriculture, there would have been no need for the South to protect their “peculiar institution.”*

[* Today is also the 150th anniversary of General Benjamin Butler — would later be a “House Manager” in the Andrew Johnson Impeachment — issuance of his infamous order regarding the women of New Orleans:

“As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the woman (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.” ]

Meantime, the “People’s Department” has expanded perhaps, to something beyond Lincoln’s highest hopes:

Today, many of the programs concerned with the distribution of food and nutrition to people of America and providing nourishment as well as nutrition education to those in need are run and operated under the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Activities in this program include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides healthy food to over 40 million low-income and homeless individuals and families each month. USDA is a member of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness where it is committed to working with other agencies to ensure these mainstream benefits are accessed by those experiencing homelessness.

The USDA also is concerned with assisting farmers and food producers with the sale of crops and food on both a domestic and on the world market. It plays a role in overseas aid programs by providing surplus foods to developing countries. This aid can go through USAID, foreign governments, international bodies such as World Food Program, or approved non profit organizations.

American farming

During the Grant Administration (the next-to-last progressive Republican president) in 1876,  nobody wanted to see the assessment of the condition of nation’s vast forests turned over to the care of the Department of the Interior (the logical place in an organizational chart of the US federal government, as we shall see), and was given to “the People’s department,” instead.

In 1876, Congress created the office of Special Agent in the Department of Agriculture to assess the quality and conditions of forests in the United States. Franklin B. Hough was appointed the head of the office. In 1881, the office was expanded into the newly-formed Division of Forestry.

Then, Theodore Roosevelt (the last progressive Republican president)  had to clean up Interior’s mess:

The Forest Reserve Act of 1891 authorized withdrawing land from the public domain as “forest reserves,” managed by the Department of the Interior. In 1901, the Division of Forestry was renamed the Bureau of Forestry. The Transfer Act of 1905 transferred the management of forest reserves from the General Land Office of the Interior Department to the Bureau of Forestry, henceforth known as the United States Forest Service. Gifford Pinchot was the first Chief Forester of the United States Forest Service in the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt.

You might notice that it only took fourteen years (1891 to 1905) for the stench from Interior to become so foul that the forest lands they originally managed were explicitly withdrawn and transferred to the Forest Service.

Now, I have always had a special place in my heart for the Forest Service, since my dad was a Forest Service engineer, with the side duty of fighting fires during his entire career. I was raised with all the USDA Forest Service freebies and paraphernalia, including a Smokey Bear (not Smokey THE Bear) teddy bear (hat lost first day, probably, and never seen since).

Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyoming, where I was a kid

And I watched, under Reagan, those interests always clutching at the checkbook of the Department of the Interior finally manage to take over the Forest Service (or the “Forest Circus” as a former staffer once told me he called it) and you knew the crap had hit the rotating blades when Forest Service personnel were jumping from the Forest Circus to the Bureau of Land Management under the Department of the Interior.

You know how Texans tell “Aggie” jokes, or New Yorkers tell “New Jersey” jokes? That’s how federal resources people told jokes about the BLM, with BLM being always the punchline.

So you know that things was bad in LassieLand. (In her final TV incarnation, Lassie was the dog of a Forest Service ranger, saving people in the pine forests of the West week in and week out. Rather surreal to watch TV and see Lassie riding in the same old forest green (not the new, day-glow Forest service green) Forest Service motor pool vehicle my dad sometimes drove.

Lassie promo shot, 1961

Mostly, he drove the pickups, always with a box of survey stakes and rolls of red and green fluorescent tape in the back. He preferred the Chevys.

All of this is a story for another day, perhaps. But the Forest Service was the part of the “People’s Department” that I knew personally. It’s too large to fully encompass, but it’s safe to say that no single other department of the Federal government touches more lives in a potentially beneficial and even life-saving manner.

Dad was posted here when I was in high school

So, thank you Mr. President Lincoln.

And thank you Mr. President Grant.

And thank you, Mr. Theodore Roosevelt  for the Forest Service.

Teddy and Teddy poster at Art dot com

The Department of Agriculture is 150 years old today, and it remains the People’s Department.

Government and politicians do things right sometimes. Perhaps more often than is publicized, in fact.

And, while that’s my USDA choice, the vigor of the USDA is still in its prime.

My Smokey today. Nose is MIA. 



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.

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