Some historians consider James Wilson the greatest of all
U.S. secretaries of agriculture. In tenure and accomplishment, he set records that have
never been equaled. Wilson was born August 16, 1835 in Ayrshire, Scotland, near the farm
rented by Robert Burns 50 years earlier. He was one of 14 children. His parents came to
the U. S. in 1852, settling in Connecticut before moving to Tama County, Iowa, three years
He attended Grinnell College, farmed, taught school, and was elected
to the Iowa state house (1867-71), serving as speaker (1870-71). He was a state university
regent and from 1891 to 1897 was a professor of agriculture at what is now Iowa State
University. In 1897 he joined the McKinley administration as secretary of agriculture and
was retained by Presidents Roosevelt and Taft until 1913. Wilson was know as "Tama
Jim" to distinguish him from Iowa Senator James Wilson, no relation. Tama Jim was an
unusual combination of accomplished educator, shrewd politician, and gifted organizer.
President Warren Harding once asserted that except for his Scottish birth he would almost
certainly have become president of the United States.
He revolutionized American agriculture by extending the U.S.
Department of Agriculture into many areas. He established the extension service, began
U.S. world leadership in agricultural science, inaugurated programs in agricultural
economics, farm credit, soil conservation, and reforestation. He expanded facilities for
research in plant disease and insect control and began a complex of experimental fields
and laboratories at Beltsville, Md., that is known as one of the world’s greatest
Wilson never forgot his Scottish heritage. He was well
indoctrinated, mostly by his father, in the Bible and the poetry of Burns and Scott which
he often quoted to make a point. He was a good friend of Andrew Carnegie, the
industrialist, a friendship made closer by their common Scottish heritage. He was also
very close to other prominent Scottish Americans like Governor William Hoard of Wisconsin,
founder of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine, and Henry Wallace. Wallace was the father of
Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace.
All three men - Wallace, Hoard, and Wilson - were excellent speakers and
writers. They were all about the same age and tried to meet annually. They would meet, sip
a little scotch, quote Burns, and plan next year’s meeting. As a staunch Republican,
Tama Jim never wavered. He would sometimes admit there was some good in a Democrat, but
would add that he had never found it. When President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, came to
power in 1912, his 16-year tenure as Secretary of Agriculture came to an end. He was 78.
During his tenure, he expanded weather forecasting, mapped soil
types, and pushed for all weather rural roads and food inspection. Wilson began building
the hugh complex that houses the U.S.D.A. The classic colonnades stand as his memorial.
James "Tama Jim" Wilson died August 26, 1920 in Traer, Iowa.
President William McKinely said of Wilson, "He was a most
valuable public servant." General Wickersham said, "He was
poised, reserved, competent." President William Howard Taft said, "He was a
canny Scot, a delightful associate, thoughtful, genial, and thoroughly loyal."
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