Lincoln's Agriculture Legacy

Husker Home Place

This Presidents' Day, it is fitting to recall a three-month span during the Civil War when Lincoln acted to move agriculture forward.

Published on: February 19, 2013

I heard IANR Harlan Vice Chancellor, Ronnie Green, speak at the Nebraska Agriculture Technology Association conference in Grand Island last week. I agree with Green’s optimism and enthusiasm about the future of agriculture in our state, and the role UNL is sure to play in that success. In his presentation, Green referenced a series of monumental laws, passed in 1862 and signed by President Lincoln, that really changed the landscape for agriculture in our nation and shaped the future going forward to today.

Abraham Lincoln is my favorite President, not only because most historians agree that he was our best President, but also because of his political savvy and foresightedness, even in the midst of our nation’s greatest struggle.

1862: Don McCabe wrote about this monumental year for agriculture in his March 2012 Nebraska Farmer print column.
1862: Don McCabe wrote about this monumental year for agriculture in his March 2012 Nebraska Farmer print column.

It was 1862, in the second year of the Civil War. In April, at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee, more American soldiers fell than in all previous battles in American history combined. Lincoln and everyone else in the country began to recognize that this fight would be draped in blood, as we had never seen before.

Lincoln had a few things on his mind that spring and summer. His Union commander, General George McClellan, talked a good game, but didn’t follow through. Union forces had been beaten badly in the Shenandoah Valley and at Fair Oaks. By July, Lincoln had to replace McClellan, but subsequent commanders fared no better.

In the middle of all of this, he took time to sign into law a monumental series of bills that have provided the foundation for production agriculture in this country ever since. The odd thing about it is that if the Southern states had not seceded and the Civil War had not proceeded, these bills might never have become law.

It all began in May, when Lincoln signed the Act to establish a Department of Agriculture, allowing the President to appoint a “Commissioner of Agriculture” who would be the chief executive officer of the new department. Just five days later in May, he signed the famous Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of unoccupied public land to each homesteader. Of course, Nebraskans know Daniel Freeman, recognized as the first homesteader to file a claim under the act.

In July, Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, offering each state 30,000 acres of federal land for each member of Congress it had as of the 1860 census. The land, or the proceeds from its sale, would be used to establish 106 land-grant colleges across the country. Agricultural research, Extension Service and the growth and development of agriculture in our nation today is owed in large part to this 1862 act. Lincoln himself understood the great importance of education, and how crucial that education would be as the nation grew.

Finally, we can’t forget Lincoln’s signing of the Pacific Railway Act, also in July, providing federal support for what would become the transcontinental railroad, changing forever how agricultural goods could be moved to markets around the growing nation. Much of this legislation had been opposed by Southern Democrats, and even vetoed by President Buchanan in the years before Lincoln took office. So, the Civil War actually provided the atmosphere for Congress to pass these historic acts, and for Lincoln to sign them.

Nebraska Farmer editor, Don McCabe, wrote an excellent column in our print issue last March about the importance of the year 1862, and what it means to Nebraskans today. But on this Presidents’ Day, I thought it was worth mentioning again, and paying particular tribute to Lincoln for his contributions to our nation’s farmers.

Be sure to watch Nebraska Farmer online and read our February print issue of Nebraska Farmer for news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress Dateline Drought.