J. Sterling Morton was appointed secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the beginning of President Grover Cleveland’s second term in 1893. The job had been created only four years earlier; Morton made the position into an effective resource for American agriculture. He was the first Nebraskan to serve in any Cabinet post.
Under the direction of Morton’s predecessor, Jeremiah Rusk, the Department of Agriculture had become known chiefly as a source of federal jobs. Morton quickly set about changing its image. His unfailing humor was a great asset. Morton may have been the best-dressed and most urbane man in the Cabinet, but he used bucolic references whenever it was to his advantage. This correspondence to the president’s private secretary is typical:
“Be kind enough to inform me whether the gentlemen of the Cabinet who are to appear at the White House at 5:30 this afternoon are expected to come in full dress or Prince Albert suits. We grangers are a little unused to so much daylight style.”
Morton stressed economy and efficiency, and he personally investigated accounts for apparent extravagance. He wrote one experiment station director, “I notice that the feed bill for your horses during the past ten months has averaged $178.77 per month. That I consider extravagant beyond all reason. I wish it distinctly understood that wherever there is an opportunity to economize, it should be embraced with alacrity, and that if you do not economize some one will be put in your place who will.”
Morton eliminated frivolous jobs in the Department of Agriculture, closed unneeded experiment stations, and did away with expensive privileges for special interest groups. His administration championed scientific investigation aiding agriculture. Morton created three new divisions: agrostology, agricultural soils and crop production, and road improvement. A new section on foreign markets was added. Under Morton’s leadership, the Weather Bureau added ten thousand cities and towns to its service. Leaving the office in March of 1897, Morton could point with pride to his position as a respected part of the president’s Cabinet.