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Wilson, Jameslocked

(16 August 1836–26 August 1920)
  • Robert S. La Forte

James Wilson

Photograph by F. B. Johnston, c. 1906.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ6-1817).

Wilson, James (16 August 1836–26 August 1920), secretary of agriculture, was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of John Wilson and Jean McCosh, farmers. After immigrating to Connecticut in 1851, the family settled permanently on a farm in Tama County, Iowa, in 1855. Wilson attended public schools in the area and Iowa College (now Grinnell) but did not graduate. He began farming in 1861 and was elected to a series of local governmental offices as a Republican. He married Esther Wilbur in 1873; they had eight children.

In 1867 Wilson entered the Iowa legislature and, during his third term, in 1871, became Speaker of the house. In 1872 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served competently and was a member of the Agricultural Committee. After his second term, he returned to farming for five years. Wilson was again elected to Congress from Iowa’s Fifth District shortly after beginning a term on the state Railway Commission. During this session of Congress, which began on 4 March 1883, in addition to the Agricultural Committee, he was a member of the Rules Committee. To distinguish him from Iowa’s junior senator, who had the same name, Wilson was nicknamed “Tama Jim” after his home county.

Although Wilson’s reelection was successfully contested, he managed to retain his seat almost to the close of the 1885 session. He once more returned to farming and began writing for various farm journals, including Iowa Homestead. In 1891 he was appointed a professor of agriculture at Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University of Science and Technology) in Ames, director of the school’s agricultural experiment station, and senior dean until 1897. In both positions he emphasized the need for scientific and practical education.

In 1897, to settle a dispute involving several prominent Iowa Republican leaders, President William McKinley appointed Wilson to be the nation’s third secretary of agriculture. He served in the post under Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and William Howard Taft. Wilson was involved directly or indirectly in all important legislation related to agriculture in the period. As secretary he introduced various crops, such as Cuban and Sumatran tobacco, durum wheat, Swedish oats, Egyptian cotton, and mohair goats. Wilson was responsible for programs to eradicate ticks, fight the boll weevil, check hog cholera, and control bovine tuberculosis as well as offering instruction in the proper handling and preparation of milk. Moreover, to encourage more scientific farm practices, he increased the number of agricultural experiment stations across the United States, began farm demonstration work and cooperative extension work, and fostered home economics. He also promoted scientific fertilization through the Bureau of Plant Industry and helped improve the nation’s roadways as part of the function of the department’s Office of Public Roads. At the time of his death, the New York Times remarked, “We don’t know anybody who added so much to the national wealth as Mr. Wilson did in his sixteen years” (28 Aug. 1920).

Wilson was a close associate of Gifford Pinchot, chief forester in the Agriculture Department. With his help, Wilson put additional public lands in forest reserve and developed afforestation and reforestation projects. He championed “rational use” of natural resources, that is, a reasonable use rather than strict preservation and replenishing them if possible. Wilson was a major force behind the 1908 Conference of Governors, the so-called White House Conference on Natural Resources. Every state governor and representatives of some seventy national organizations attended the meeting that Pinchot called “the most distinguished gathering on the most important issue ever to meet in the White House” (Smith, p. 124). At the time, Wilson was president of the American Forestry Association (1898–1908).

Wilson became involved in some memorable controversies. Along with President Roosevelt, he opposed Asiatic immigration into Hawaii, hoping to save the islands for white landowners. In 1905 he was forced to fire Edwin S. Holmes, a department statistician who prematurely gave crop reports to private speculators and manipulated crop figures in order to gain illegal profits. Wilson became involved in the Ballinger-Pinchot affair in 1910, when Pinchot said that he had received the secretary’s permission to write Senator Jonathan Dolliver (R.-Iowa) a letter highly critical of Taft’s commitment to conservation. Dolliver read the letter on the floor of the Senate. Wilson denied Pinchot’s claim and, at Taft’s instruction, dismissed his longtime friend.

In 1911 Secretary Wilson was responsible for charges filed against Harvey W. Wiley, chief chemist of the Department of Agriculture, ostensibly for paying pharmacologist H. H. Rusby twice the amount fixed by law for his services. Some suggest that the problem was Wilson’s lack of support for enforcement of food and drug laws. Wiley had been a major factor in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Law and the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and was responsible for their enforcement. Ironically, he and Wilson had worked closely together investigating businesses involved in meat packing and food processing and had received accolades from Roosevelt for their work. An angry and discouraged Wiley retired in March 1912.

When a political split developed between Taft and Roosevelt in 1910, Wilson met with Roosevelt to encourage a reconciliation and assure the former president that Taft was following “Roosevelt’s policies.” It was of no avail; Progressive Republicans convinced Roosevelt otherwise. In 1912 Wilson remained loyal to the party’s nominee and, after Taft failed to be reelected, returned to his home in Iowa.

Governor George W. Clarke of Iowa appointed Wilson to observe and report on agricultural conditions in Great Britain in 1913. He was elected president of the National Agricultural Society and supported his former cabinet colleague Elihu Root for the Republican presidential nomination in 1916. Wilson spent his final years in retirement. He died in Traer, Iowa.

Wilson was an energetic worker motivated by his Presbyterian ideals. He successfully bridged the gap between practical farmer and man of science. An obituary writer said, “His friends boasted that it was he who changed the entire viewpoint of the farmers of the country by teaching them that farming is a science” (New York Times, 27 Aug. 1920).


Letters to Wilson and information about him appear frequently in Elting E. Morison, ed., The Letters of Theodore Roosevelt (8 vols., 1951–1954). He is mentioned in Archibald Willingham Butt, Taft and Roosevelt: The Intimate Letters of Archie Butt, Military Aide (2 vols., 1930). Earley Veron Wilcox, Tama Jim (c. 1930), is an old biography. He is also discussed in Margaret Leech, In the Days of McKinley (1959); Page Smith, America Enters the World: A People’s History of the Progressive Era and World War I (1985); and Henry F. Pringle, The Life and Times of William Howard Taft: A Biography (2 vols., 1939). Much useful information may be found in the New York Times, including his obituary on 27 Aug. 1920; and in the Department of Agriculture’s yearbooks and annual reports, 1897 to 1913.