On this day in history: May 15.

Our image of Abraham Lincoln? We see our 16th president as wholly preoccupied with maintaining the Union, and the prosecution of the Civil War. In fact, however, Lincoln managed to leave a broader legacy.

One of his notable contributions?[1]

Signing into law on this date in 1862 a bill establishing a Bureau of Agriculture within the federal government. Later, in 1889, under President Grover Cleveland, the Bureau would be renamed the U.S. Department of Agriculture and given full cabinet status within the executive branch.

Of course, Lincoln didn’t create the new bureau out of whole cloth. The Congress had established a division of Agriculture within the US Patent Office in 1839, allotting $1000 for “the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes.”

Why?

Some three years earlier, in 1836, the U.S. Patent Office, at the time housed in the Department of State, welcomed a new Commissioner of Patents, by the name of Henry Ellsworth. An attorney, educated at Yale, Ellsworth’s tenure would be remembered for his encouragement of inventions by Samuel Morse (the telegraph) and Samuel Colt (inventor of the eponymous revolver), but he also had an interest in improving agriculture. He collected seeds and plants and began distributing these. In his annual reports he called for several measures: establishment of a depository for seeds and plants, a clerk to keep statistics, state crop reports, etc.

Drumroll. All young readers of this blog please take special note. The above historical bit demonstrates the power of the empassioned, committed individual. I know many of you. You are such people. Henry Ellsworth has nothing on you. You have a vision for how to make the world a better place. Make it real! Don’t settle for less or give up. You can do this!

By 1849, the Patent Office had been transferred to the Department of the Interior. But calls for an independent agency kept recurring. [Sound familiar, anyone?] And Lincoln made that dream a reality.

Lincoln’s influence on agriculture didn’t stop there. Less than two months later, on July 2, 1862, he signed into law the Morrill Act. This and subsequent legislation provided for land grants to the states for the establishment of colleges, whose purpose was…

without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

A little backstory. Morrill was a Congressman from Vermont. He was actively involved in the passage of the bill, but the idea originated with a professor Jonathan Turner of Illinois College. He drafted legislation which the Illinois State Legislature then passed along to their U.S. Senator, Lyman Trumbull. Trumbell’s assessment was that the law stood a better chance of passage if an easterner introduced it…and Morrill was brought in.

[Ever heard the saying, “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit? Here’s a data point.]

Second drumroll. All young readers of this blog please take special note. The above historical bit demonstrates the power of the empassioned, committed individual. I know many of you. You are such people. Jonathan Turner, Lyman Trumbull, and Justin Morrill have nothing on you. You have a vision for how to make the world a better place. Make it real! Don’t settle for less or give up. You can do this!

[Getting a feeling of déjà vu? That’s the whole idea. Live with it! Or better yet…make something of it.]

The Morrill Act provided each state with 30,000 acres of federal lands, which could be either used or sold for the purpose of establishing these schools. Originally, the opportunity was available only to Union states, but after the Civil War ended, the southern states were brought in.

Of course the land-grant colleges and universities have become a backbone of our higher-education here in the United States. They helped make agricultural, engineering, and many other professional careers accessible for millions of Americans in every generation since. They transformed our Nation and the people in it…and the process hasn’t stopped. It’s still unfolding.

Later, in 1864, Lincoln would sign into law a grant creating the Yosemite, the first instance of federal action setting aside land for preservation and public use, and often cited as the progenitor of the National Park System.

[One last vignette. The National Weather Service has its origins in the U.S. Army Signal Service (another story for another day, but Lincoln figured here as well). In 1891, these meteorological duties were transferred to the US Department of Agriculture. There they remained for almost half a century, before being transferred to the US Department of Commerce in 1940.]

Add all these up! Taken together, the chapters of this story show that few presidents can claim to have done more to promote effective policies with respect to the Earth as a resource, victim, and threat.

And were he alive today, Lincoln might well say, “would that slavery had never existed, and that history had been such that these bills were my only legacy to the Nation.”


[1] Much of the material here comes from a Wikipedia article on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the links therein.

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