Federalized Farming: The United States Department of Agriculture Sprouted 150 Years Ago, during the Lincoln Administration, and Has since Grown Enormous, Fertilized Annually by Washington
Terrell, Rebecca, The New American
Abraham Lincoln instituted the United States Department of Agriculture 150 years ago. It began as a nine-employee information agency charged with research and development responsibilities and commodity plant distribution. This mere seedling bureau would grow into a government leviathan that today manipulates not only agriculture and rural development but also various aspects of our economic, environmental, education, healthcare, and foreign policies.
Its growth would have been easy to predict. The Agricultural Organic Act that Lincoln signed on May 15, 1862, established USDA, authorizing it to conduct research and development related to "agriculture, rural development, aquaculture and human nutrition in the most general and comprehensive sense of those terms." (Emphasis added.) Such ambiguous wording invited the rampant regulatory expansion of the next 150 years.
Today USDA dubs itself "an Every Way, Every Day Department," bragging that it "touches the lives of every American, as well as people across the globe." Its marketing materials advertise that USDA supports agricultural communities and economy; protects and conserves natural resources; sends foreign aid around the world; and provides a safe, sufficient, and nutritious domestic food supply.
USDA Origins in Lincoln's Agenda
To understand USDA's true nature it is helpful to have a grasp of the radical political landscape into which the agency was born. Prior to Lincoln's presidential administration, citizens of the United States enjoyed decentralized, limited government framed by the Founding Fathers. During the first 70 years of the nation's history, Congress repeatedly defended the populace against numerous bills intended to unconstitutionally expand federal power. Lincoln's election brought an end to this era.
At its founding, USDA was one-of-a-kind. It was the first department focused on a particular segment of the population. Incredibly and irrationally, private industry farmers suddenly became a special interest group of federal welfare recipients.
USDA's novelty was perfectly in keeping with Lincoln's other policies. As President he suspended habeas corpus (which enables prisoners to be released from unlawful detention) in all states. He thereby imprisoned political adversaries without trial in the North, such as his arrest of pro-Confederate Maryland legislators in September of 1861 to prevent the state from voting to secede. He ordered invasion of the South without congressional approval, declared martial law, and confiscated private property and firearms. He even had a member of Congress deported to Canada for disagreeing with his policies.
Throughout his administration Lincoln maintained a characteristic disregard for the Constitution. From his earliest campaigning days in Illinois he declared himself in favor of a strong, centralized federal government based on a national bank, special-interest subsidies, and high tariffs. In his book The Real Lincoln, author Thomas J. DiLorenzo points out that the focus of Honest Abe's entire political career was protectionism, federal control of the money supply, and "internal improvements" (i.e., corporate welfare) for private business. He writes that these three planks, ushered in during the War Between the States, resulted in a political patronage system that favors special-interest groups at the expense of taxpayers, stifling the economy but forwarding political careers.
Lincoln found in the War Between the States a rationale to suspend constitutional liberties and establish a highly centralized federal government. In addition to the war, the country suffered rampant federal infringements from the hand of Lincoln, including a central bank and the nation's first income tax, decades prior to the adoption of the 16th (income tax) Amendment in 1913.
His USDA was just the thing to curry political favor with farmers, who made up 50 percent of the population and whose products accounted for 80 percent of national exports in 1862, according to Wayne Rasmussen with the Agricultural History Society. …