Recently, to mark the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birthday, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack broke ground on The People's Garden at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In his speech, Secretary Vilsack set a goal of creating a community garden at every USDA site in the world.
It is fitting that the USDA should choose to honor President Lincoln through the creation of a People’s Garden. When Lincoln established the USDA in 1862, at a time when more than half the population of the country was involved in agriculture, he referred to it as "The People's Department." It’s a description that is as true today as it was then.
What has always moved me to tears about Lincoln’s legislative work in 1862 is the breathtaking optimism required to be able to envision and enact it. 1862 was a year when the success of Union forces was mixed at best. In May, Union troops were forced to retreat across the Potomac to protect Washington, D.C. In August, about 10,000 of the 62,000 Union soldiers fighting were wounded or killed in the bloody and horrific Second Battle of Bull Run. Military leadership was replaced more than once. Support for the war in the North was not solid.
Despite these challenges, Lincoln had an unshakeable belief that the Union would prevail. He knew that a united America would need new farmers to homestead the vast continent that held so much promise. He knew that educational institutions – land grant institutions that literally arose from the land itself – would be needed to train a new generation of American farmers in a nation no longer divided by civil war.
Lincoln’s vision was audacious, and the legislation it inspired transformed America.
The Morrill Land-Grant College Act, passed in 1862, authorized public land grants to create colleges that would teach agriculture, home economics and “mechanic arts.” The Morrill Act mandated that colleges of agriculture be established in all U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia, totaling 59 colleges known as "1862” institutions. (A second Morrill Act in 1890 addressing racial inequities established 17 additional land-grant colleges known as “1890” institutions.) Another piece of noteworthy legislation that passed in 1862 was the Homestead Act, which provided 160 acres of public land to settlers, and which gave many family farmers their start.
As a result of Lincoln’s vision, a national department of agriculture was formed, land grant institutions were created, and the vast reaches of the continent were populated with the sturdy yeoman farmer of Thomas Jefferson’s musings. Lincoln’s ability to inspire a nation to change amidst a war that threatened its very existence should inspire us today.
The People’s Gardens proposed by the USDA have the potential to demonstrate to a new generation of Americans the power of the simple act of gardening to transform a nation. President Lincoln would be proud to see his legacy to the land continue to endure through the People’s Garden. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack should be congratulated.
But we, The People, could do more. The establishment of a People’s Garden at each USDA site in the world is a wonderful goal. But a truly visionary goal – one of Lincolnesque proportions – would be for our nation’s leadership to encourage the establishment of millions of “people’s gardens” across the nation. And for us, as engaged citizens, to answer the call to service. How could this be done? Simply by encouraging Americans to cultivate gardens of all sizes at schools, homes, in the community and at workplaces, through a revival of the successful and iconic Liberty/Victory Garden campaigns of WWI and WWII.
In a speech he delivered to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, President Lincoln shared his feelings about how the cultivation of land – even “the smallest quantity of ground” - supported freedom and independence. He said, “…and ere long the most valuable of all arts, will be the art of deriving a comfortable subsistence from the smallest area of soil. No community whose every member possesses this art, can ever be the victim of oppression of any of its forms. Such community will be alike independent of crowned-kings, money-kings, and land-kings...."
“…whose every member possesses this art.” Lincoln’s words still hold true.
The USDA should lead the way in reviving a national gardening effort, now. And we should all answer the call to service by participating. A People’s Garden is the first step. But a garden for everyone - and everyone in a garden - is a better goal, a needed goal, a worthier goal for our nation in this time of hardship…and opportunity, if we can envision it.