When he was stumping for the office of president in 1859, Abraham Lincoln equated the ability of Americans to produce food with freedom.
Lincoln said this:
“And thorough work, again, renders sufficient, the smallest quantity of ground to each man. And this again, conforms to what must occur in a world less inclined to wars, and more devoted to the arts of peace, than heretofore. Population must increase rapidly — more rapidly than in former times — 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.”
This is pretty heady stuff, radical even; a strongly pluralistic message about land. While Lincoln’s feeling that the nation might be more devoted to peace hasn’t exactly panned out, I think the rest still resonates.
Often, we hear what we want to hear. So I read these words to mean that as long as every American knows how to cultivate land, we will be free from oppression. Oppression from all sorts of things, but perhaps also freedom from the oppression presented by hunger, obesity and lack of community engagement. Knowing how to cultivate land is an essential ingredient of independence (on all sorts of levels). It is an art. It is a science. It is essential to survival. When I read these words more than 150 years after they were spoken, the clarity and strength and truth of them inspires me to return to the garden.
Lincoln’s Impact on Food and Agriculture is Still Felt Today
Abraham Lincoln’s legislative agenda still impacts the American food system. In 1862, within the span of a few months, Lincoln permanently changed the course of American agriculture. During this time the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was created. Three pieces of legislation were also passed that would forever change the face of the nation: the Pacific Railroad Act, the Homestead Act and the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, which created America’s land-grant institutions, including the University of California.
In 1862, America was in its second year of the Civil War, which threatened the nation’s very survival. It was an unsettled time. Battles such as Shiloh — which would haunt American memory for decades — and Lincoln’s preliminary Emancipation Proclamation left Americans feeling uncertain, but also in the case of the North, bravely charting a new direction that expressed optimism despite the war. At that time, farmers made up more than 50% of America’s labor force; legislation such as the Morrill Act reflected the importance of their work and reinforced the economic and social importance of agriculture to the nation’s future. The Morrill Act also demonstrated an increased emphasis in taking a more “scientific” approach to agricultural production and education.
Learn more about how the University of California is tackling global food issues through its Global Food Initiative.
The Influence of Myth on American Identity
The influence of myth on identity is powerful. Americans are often presented (and frequently still view ourselves) as an agricultural, who have never entirely forgotten the agrarian ideal and our nation’s rural roots. Few of us practice agriculture today, but nearly all of us perpetuate the mythical status of farming and the importance of the farmer in American life (even if we don’t know one). As well we should: food is fundamental.
One of the most sacred places in American life is our National Mall, where we memorialize and celebrate our shared purpose, our leaders and our losses. Here is one way in which we are exceptional: We are a nation that has placed its federal agency for agriculture on the National Mall…on sacred ground. I am sure that some of you reading this post have visited the USDA’s offices in the Whitten Building. Perhaps, like me, you have been struck at its location, a site so central to American civic life and identity.
With assistance from land-grant trained volunteers, the USDA operates a People’s Garden outside the Whitten Building, on the National Mall, on space that is sacred to our nation. Millions of people pass by this garden each year. The garden links personal experiences with cultivation with larger themes of agriculture. A short distance away, visitors can see a vegetable garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
These things say wonderful things about our nation: no land is too sacred for the very sacred act of cultivating food. We were a nation of farmers at origin: we are still a nation of farmers at heart.
Which is why this weekend, when we celebrate the birth of our nation, I’ll be celebrating the many freedoms I enjoy by eating food produced by American farmers and working with friends on our common gardening enterprise.
Have a wonderful and safe 4th of July.
Editor’s Note: ICYMI, read Lincoln in the kitchen: a reflection, and a recipe for Presidents’ Day. And try your hand at a recipe provided by food historian Rae Eighmey; it may have appeared in President Lincoln’s own kitchen.
You might also enjoy:
Q&A with Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists (he discusses the need for a national food policy)