One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law a Congressional act establishing a Department of Agriculture. Lincoln had told Congress an agricultural bureau would suffice but enthusiastic lawmakers wanted a department instead.
Five days later, Lincoln would sign the Homestead Act that provided 160 acres of public land to any American who was the head of a family and was over 21 years old.
On July 2 of that year, the president signed the Morrill Act, which established a system of land grant colleges to “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts.” It committed the federal government to grant each state, except those in rebellion, a total of 30,000 acres of federal land to be used to establish the schools.
Lincoln managed to give these acts his attention while the Civil War entered its second year. Between May 15 and July 2, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson concluded his very successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign, Union forces took Memphis and the Seven Days Battle, with no clear winner, ended with 16,000 casualties on the Union side and 20,000 for the Confederates.
However, the Agriculture Department took root and Lincoln was able to report to Congress on Dec. 1, 1862, that it had already managed to create an extensive system of correspondence that would help establish “correct knowledge of recent improvements in agriculture, in the introduction of new products and in the collection of the agricultural statistics of the different States.” And the new department would be ready soon to distribute seeds, plants and cuttings.