Morton on Economy

J. Sterling Morton, appointed secretary of the Department of Agriculture by President Grover Cleveland in February of 1893, wasted no time in streamlining and economizing on operations in the department. He asked the heads of all bureaus under his control to furnish him with a list of employees and functions that could be eliminated without injury to the public service.

“‘I notice that the feed-bill for your horses during the past ten months has averaged $178.77 per month,’ he wrote to the director of an experiment station. ‘That I consider extravagant beyond all reason. . . . If the farmers of this country had to pay $178.77 per month for the subsistence of each span of horses they use, I think the annual crop would find them badly in debt. But you may say that this embraces the cattle also. Very well. Admitting that, it must have been a large herd of cattle to consume $178.77 worth of forage. But in order that you may have a fair chance to show why this tremendous outgo of money is permitted, I will be pleased to have you state the number of cattle you have averaged each day for the last ten months, and the amount of food they have consumed.'”

Morton also dismissed employees he felt were not providing useful or economical services to the public. He wrote to one hapless woman on March 23, 1893, “I have to inform you that scrutiny and good discipline in the public service demand that you be dropped from the pay-roll in the Division of Botany of the Department of Agriculture. I am surprised to observe that in your record of absences from June, 1891, to February 25, 1893, are comprised four hundred and eighty-nine and one-half (489 l/2) days, and that for all those days in which no service was rendered to the Government, you were paid at the rate of eighteen hundred dollars per annum. Therefore, upon the record above, I am compelled to dismiss you from the service.”

A succeeding report to Morton by Frederick W. Coville, chief of the Division of Botany within the Department of Agriculture, reported that “since September, 1892, . . . she [the dismissed employee] has been making a study of the minute anatomy of wheat grains, having turned out perhaps thirty or forty drawings.” He agreed with Morton that “the work produced is wholly incommensurate with the amount of money paid for it.”

Morton also cited the need for government economy after criticizing the federal appropriation for the World’s Columbian Exposition, held at Chicago in 1893, as “extravagantly liberal.” According to the Omaha World-Herald of April 30, 1893, “He [Morton] does not think that there is any constitutional authority for such an appropriation. He thinks that all this fuss about Columbus opens the door to extravagant expenditure in honor of any old gentleman who may have distinguished himself. He is determined that the $142,350 allotted for exhibition purposes to the department of agriculture will not be wasted.” 

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