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Mary Lincoln’s USDA


“An American Marriage,” Michael Burlingame’s book about the tumultuous marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, contains interesting insights into how Mary Lincoln profited from the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862.

Before we get to those shenanigans, it is worth noting that five of the nation’s 32 secretaries of agriculture were Iowans and that three others had ties to the state.   

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, the current head of the USDA, is the second-longest-serving  secretary of agriculture, with eight years under President Barack Obama and six months and counting under Joe Biden. 

Those extra months push Vilsack ahead of two other ag secretaries who also served eight years: Minnesotan Orville Freeman (1961-69) and Idaho’s Ezra Taft Benson (1953-61). 

Benson was one of three other USDA chiefs with Iowa ties, having obtained a Master of Science degree in agricultural economics from Iowa State College in Ames in 1927. The others were Nebraskan Mike Johanns (2005-08), who was born in Osage, Iowa, and grew up on a nearby dairy farm, and Missouri’s Arthur Mastick Hyde (1929-33), who received a law degree from the University of Iowa in 1900.

The only USDA chief with more longevity than Vilsack was Iowa’s James “Tama Jim” Wilson, who served 16 consecutive years (1897-1913) under three Republican presidents – William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. 

Wilson lived in Tama County and was called “Tama Jim” to distinguish him from “Jefferson Jim” Wilson, an Iowa congressman from Jefferson County. 

Scottish-born Wilson taught agriculture at Iowa State College before serving two congressional terms in the 1870s. He then served six years on the Iowa State Railway Commission before running again for the U.S. House in 1882. He appeared to win that election, but Democrats who controlled the House refused to seat him.    

Wilson’s 16 years as ag secretary were the most ever served by any member of a president’s cabinet. 

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, said Wilson served during “a period of modernization of agricultural methods,” and that he “organized greater food inspections methods as well as improvement of many roads.” But, it added, Wilson “spent most of his long tenure attempting to limit the regulatory impact of the pure food movement.” 

Iowa’s three other ag secretaries were well-known farm publishers from Des Moines: Edwin T. Meredith (1920-21), Henry C. Wallace (1921-24) and Wallace’s son, Henry A. Wallace (1933-1940). 

Although the USDA is today an agency with broad powers, its creation in 1862 as a division of the Department of the Interior went largely unnoticed at the time.

The lack of attention made it easy pickings for the free-spending Mary Lincoln and her patronage-seeking friends,

according to author and Lincoln scholar Burlingame.

“The Agricultural Department was apparently created at the instigation of a cabal of shady characters who colluded with the First Lady to raid the public treasury and create patronage opportunities,” Burlingame wrote.

Mary Lincoln was famous for overspending on White House improvements and personal items, and she attempted to cover her expenses, according to Burlingame, by “padding payrolls and expense accounts” as well as “accepting bribes and kickbacks [and] selling pardons and trading permits.”

Among others, he quoted Emily Briggs, a “journalist friend” of Mary Lincoln, who later wrote: “crafty men put their heads together and decided to call into being a ‘Bureau of Agriculture’ whose different departments were to be ‘run,’ each by its particular head, independent of the others [constituting] a cluster of little kingdoms with a nominal head that should be empty of ideas, possessing only one requisite, that of managing Mrs. Lincoln and the appropriation of the public funds.” 

That “nominal head” was Isaac Newton, the first U.S commissioner of agriculture, a nice man of questionable competency whose kickbacks to Mary Lincoln were unknown to her husband. 

During Newton’s tenure, which lasted until his death in 1867, “Sir Isaac” was “an object of ridicule, widely known for his malapropisms and ignorance,” Burlingame wrote.

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