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Why Do We Have USDA?

Lincoln's vision of middle-class uplift lies behind the much-mocked Department of Agriculture.

Today, in the minds of many, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a joke. Sure, USDA has a following in Nebraska, and two-thirds of its $154 billion budget go to food stamps, which are popular enough in some quarters. But the libertarian right thinks that USDA should be abolished, and the left thinks that subsidies for “agribusiness,” at least, should be cut back or eliminated. As for the greens, they want nothing to do with anything that isn’t natural and organic; the hottest yuppie-foodie trend these days is “locavorism.” At the same time, the media are feasting, if that’s the word, on stories about “pink slime”–a beef product that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack bravely but haplessly defends as “healthy, safe and generally less expensive.”

Would it help USDA’s case if Americans knew how much Abraham Lincoln liked the idea of federal activism on behalf of agriculture? Would it help if they knew that Lincoln campaigned on that idea, and pushed it into enactment, even during the Civil War?

Today, the 16th president’s biographers and hagiographers appear to savor every word that he said, wrote, or thought–although, come to think of it, the fascination seems mostly about Lincoln as a war leader, or as an emancipator, or even as a husband and family man.

Yet Lincoln’s economic views seem to receive little attention. Perhaps that’s because they are so out of kilter with contemporary thinking on both the left and the right. Like most Whigs-turned-Republicans of his era, Lincoln believed in activist government on behalf of the middle class–for “workingmen,” to use their terminology.  Today’s left, to be sure, is on board for the activist-government part, but its interest seems to have narrowed down to minorities, atmospheric CO2 , and the occasional endangered species.  And today’s right, meanwhile, is little interested in domestic government, period.

So although the Lincolnian vision of middle-class uplift fails to fit the mentality of either party today,  in 1860 Lincoln’s team–even his rivals–all signed on to this vision of hard-work-oriented middle-class boosterism. The Republican Party, meeting in Chicago that year to nominate Lincoln as its presidential candidate, published a platform that endorsed governmental action to keep wages high, as well as keep prices high for both manufactured goods and farm products:

We commend that policy of national exchanges which secures to the workingmen liberal wages, to agriculture remunerating prices, to mechanics and manufacturers an adequate reward for their skill, labor and enterprise, and to the nation commercial prosperity and independence.

In the context of the time, these words meant support for guilds and granges, as well as tariffs. All these policies, aimed at raising wages and prices–and also raising incomes and profits–were part of a school of thought associated with Henry Charles Carey, the leading economist of the day. The title of Carey’s 1851 book, The Harmony of Interests: Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial, sums up the early Republican agenda.  We might think of it as proto-Rotary Club–the concept that if the right policies are in place, everyone on Main Street will have a better life.

But how could such a high-wage/high-price policy work without being inflationary?  How could it actually yield a higher standard of living?

There’s only one way: through higher productivity, higher per-worker output–and higher per-farmer output. Lincoln, who earned a patent in 1849 for a device to lift boats, was always fascinated by technology and its benefits.  One of his stump speeches in the 1850s, “Discoveries and Inventions,” praised inventors throughout history, ranging from the first weavers in the Bible to the engineers of the Age of Steam.

And farmers were praised, too. In a speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on September 30, 1859, Lincoln lauded farm pioneers for “putting the soil to the top of its capacity–producing the largest crop possible from a given quantity of ground.” Such pro-farm talk was not only good economics to Lincoln, it was also good politics; in 1860, more than 80 percent of Americans lived in rural areas.

So upon entering the White House, the new president resolved to advance his agricultural agenda, even in wartime. In his first annual message to Congress in December 1861, he lamented that agriculture, “the largest interest of the nation, has not a department nor a bureau.” And so, he continued, “I venture the opinion that an agricultural and statistical bureau might profitably be organized.” Six months later, on May 15, 1862, Lincoln signed the Department of Agriculture into existence; the first commissioner was one Isaac Newton of New Jersey.

In fact, the creation of USDA was just a part of Lincoln’s overall economic strategy. In that same year, 1862, the president signed the Homestead Act, offering 160 acres of land to any American over the age of 21 who was willing to work and improve that land. Also in 1862, the Morrill Land Grant Colleges Act directed the federal government to donate land to the states for colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts. Finally, Lincoln authorized the sale of bonds to build the Transcontinental Railroad, connecting Iowa to California and everything in between.

Over the last century-and-a-half, USDA deserves considerable credit for the mechanization of agriculture and the resulting surge in agricultural productivity; although less than 1 percent of Americans work on the farm today, acreage under cultivation has more than doubled. In addition, programs such as rural electrification have enabled folks in remote areas to enjoy the same amenities as urban-dwellers. Today Americans are well-fed, prosperity is widely distributed, and the nation exports food.  In Lincoln’s mind, all these achievements would add up to “a job well done.”

If USDA is now a joke in the minds of many, a Lincoln living in the White House today would not find it funny at all. To him, helping develop and defend the middle class was always serious business, and so today, in any updated Lincolnian strategy, revitalizing USDA for new missions on behalf of working families in rural America would be a crucial element.  Indeed, a President Lincoln today would also undoubtedly get to work on a broad range of pro-productivity measures, aimed at raising wages, prices, profits, and outputs.

Were Lincoln to walk among us again, one can say that his ideas and proposals would thoroughly confound the policy elites and powerbrokers in both parties.

James P. Pinkerton is a contributor to the Fox News Channel and a TAC contributing editor.



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