Lincoln Scholar & Director of Statewide Land Acquisiton, New Jersey Conservation Foundation
Greg Romano is the assistant director of statewide land acquisition for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. Prior to joining the Conservation Foundation, Greg worked in New Jersey state government, first in the New Jersey Attorney General’s office and for many years thereafter in the New Jersey Department of Agriculture where he directed farmland preservation. He has served as executive director of the State Agriculture Development Committee, the organization that carries out New Jersey’s farm land preservation program. Greg is one of the nation’s leading experts on Abraham Lincoln. He has an extensive Lincoln library, is the past president of the Lincoln Club of New York City and is a member of the Lincoln Forum, an organization dedicated to enhancing the understanding of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Greg holds a law degree from Dickinson College of Law.
When Abraham Lincoln became President, he brought to the White House a background steeped in the values and concerns of rural America, much of it gained from his years riding the judicial circuit as an attorney. In each community along the circuit, one or two days a month were reserved for trials. These trials often involved farmers and farm issues. Lincoln appreciated the earthy humor and homespun philosophy of rural America and used it to great effect in his political career. He had the rare faculty of being able to joke about himself. During the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas accused him of being two-faced. Lincoln famously replied, “I leave it to you my friend. If I had two faces would I be wearing this one?”
Lincoln is best known as the Great Emancipator and for his role in preserving the union. Less well known is the transformational role he played in American Agriculture. At the outbreak of the Civil War about half the 31 million people in the nation lived on farms. More than half of them worked on farms and three quarters of the country’s exports came from farms. At that time, three out of four farm families owned the acres they tilled. In the northern and border states, farms were predominately self-sufficient. At a national average price of $16 per acre, land was inexpensive. Even at that time, advancements in farming practices were underway and agriculture was full of vitality.
The country’s westward expansion brought with it a dynamic agricultural picture. The northern and central areas saw innovations as self-sufficient farmers adopted new practices and crops, shifting from wheat to corn in places like Illinois. In the southern areas of expansion, slave-holding was the focus of controversy. Even there, however, share cropping was already replacing the master/slave model. Amidst all this change came Abraham Lincoln and the defining role he would play role in shaping agriculture’s future.
That role continues to this day. He recognized the value agricultural technology could play in bettering the fortunes of the country. In 1858, he spoke at the Young Man’s Association in Bloomington, Illinois where he discussed agricultural technology that enabled man to substitute his own muscular strength with other forces of nature such as the strength of animals and the forces of wind and water to provide the more abundant food.
His most extended speech on agriculture took place in 1859 when he addressed the Wisconsin Agricultural Society. In it, he contrasted two competing economic systems — one in which laborers were hired to work for others and another in which laborers were compelled to work. He observed that free labor granted northerners independence through subsistence agriculture and through commercial agriculture, it granted them social mobility. Southerners, on the other hand, remain mired in the feudal slave system. He encouraged farmers to think about ways to make agriculture more productive by plowing deeper, analyzing soils, making use of manures and new varieties of seeds. He talked about the need for agricultural fairs that bring people together with the aim of improving agriculture. Lincoln warned of the risks of farmers becoming too big, saying he scarcely knew of a “mammoth farm” that could sustain itself.
The Republican platform of 1860 included planks specific to agriculture. One was the enactment of the Homestead measure, one provided land grants for connecting the east and west railroad lines into a transcontinental line, one provided land grants to establish colleges to teach agriculture and engineering and one called for establishing a federal department of agriculture. All four of these were enacted into law during his presidency. In 1861 Lincoln signed into law the establishment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1862 he signed the Homestead Act. It provided 160 acres to any American citizen who was the head of a family and over 21 years of age. Title to the land was not conferred until the homesteader had worked the land for five years and made improvements on it. That same year Lincoln also signed legislation authorizing grants for expansion of the railroads and the Morrill Act providing land grants that ultimately led to the agricultural colleges in every state in the nation.
It is difficult to over-estimate the significance of these achievements for agriculture and the wealth of the nation. Taken together, the Lincoln administration put in place the federal policy framework for farmers’ relationship with the nation, the incentive and mechanism for the expansion of family farms, the transportation infrastructure for moving the fruits of their labors and the colleges that have helped drive the continuous cycle of improvement that makes American agriculture the world’s most productive.
In an effort to provide wide-ranging views and perspectives regarding the practice of and issues surrounding agriculture, the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA) seeks speakers representing a variety of perspectives. The statements and opinions they present are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the views of PSPA.