It might surprise some of our readers to learn that the research library has a large collection of yearbooks from the United States Department of Agriculture. We were recently taking a closer look at this set to determine how it compared to other library holdings in the area. While we discovered that the the Cowgirl Museum and TCU have good coverage of this title, we are the only collection that offers the earliest report of the newly-christened department covering the year 1862. In this report Congress lays out its charge:
Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That there is hereby established at the seat of government of the United States a Department of Agriculture, the general designs and duties of which shall be to acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants.
The department's first commissioner, Isaac Newton, waxes about agriculture's importance to the moral fiber of the nation and its countrymen, invoking some of the tenets of the Jeffersonian yeoman farmer ideal:
I hardly deem it necessary to attempt to convince our intelligent countryman of the vast importance of such a department, inasmuch as whatever improves the condition and the character of the farmer feeds the life-springs of national character, wealth, and power ... Agricultural pursuits tend to moderate and tranquilize the false ambition of nations, to heal sectional animosities, and afford a noble arena for honorable rivalry. The acquisition of comparatively slow, but sure, wealth, drawn from and reinvested in the soil, develops health of body, independence and simplicity of life, and love of country; while the rapid accumulation of wealth, not by production, but by trade and speculation, is unnatural and unhealthful. It attracts men to cities and tempts to wild investments. It too often unsettles moral principles, and substitutes selfishness for patriotism.
Newton further quotes a supporter of the Homestead Act of 1862 regarding the necessity of attracting immigrants to till the soil, filling the void of so many Americans lost in the ongoing Civil War:
Every acre of our fertile soil is a mine which only waits the contact of labor to yield its treasures, and every acre is opened to that fruitful contact by the homestead act. When the opportunity ... shall be understood by the working millions of Europe, it cannot be doubted that great numbers will seek American homes in order to avail themselves of the great advantages ... Every working man who comes betters the condition of the country as well as his own.
The 1862 yearbook also features a preamble of plates highlighting the agricultural riches of the nation:
In fact our copy of the report for 1864 features its own real plant life: we discovered five specimens sandwiched within its pages. Working with the Amanda Neill, Director of the Herbarium at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, we learned that all five specimens are examples of nasturtium. Since we do not know when or where the specimens were gathered, they have very little scientific value.