Trying to Reason with History and Policy in a Time of Crisis
On May 15, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing “at the seat of Government of the United States a Department of Agriculture.” Two and one-half years later, in what was to be his last annual message to the Congress, Lincoln said: "The Agricultural Department, under the supervision of its present energetic and faithful head, is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is precisely the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned that in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.
by Jonathan Coppess, Univesity of Illinois
There are more than 40 million Americans who have lost their jobs and more than 100,000 Americans have died in just a few months. The brutal killing of George Floyd adds another tragedy to a list already too extensive. With so much pain ripping through America today, the policy decisions by the Trump Administration in the food and agriculture sector are concerning. Too little has been done to assist those who need food in a pandemic and too much on trying to curtail access to food aid. These are decisions likely to produce long-lasting, deep reverberations in the body politic with consequences difficult to foresee. Farmers are struggling and payments can provide some help but the decision to prioritize payments over food is not likely to be well-received by the many waiting in long lines at food banks, struggling just to feed their families. Worse still the obvious greed of the few pushing to capture ever larger payments, especially when considered with the historical examples reviewed herein. This difficult legacy haunts every discussion about farm policy, never more so than now.
Concerns are not the equivalent of criticism for its own sake but rather a call for policies and decisions that better reflect needs and values. The failure to make real, incremental progress too often builds to a breaking point, causing vast harm and greater costs. Few words in American history are more haunting on this point than those of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. Among them his warning to a war-weary citizenry that the fighting could continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” (Lincoln, April 10, 1865). For those willing to learn, the brief record highlighted here provides a starting point from which to draw important lessons.