Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Norman J. Coleman (1889–1889): Secretary of Agriculture

One of the nineteenth century’s leading figures in the field of agriculture, Norman Coleman served as the first secretary of agriculture. He was born near Richfield Springs, New York, in May 1827 and moved to Kentucky as a young man in order to teach. He then earned a law degree at the University of Louisville Law School in 1849.

After moving to St. Louis to farm, Coleman became a leading expert in modern agricultural techniques. He began a career as an agricultural journalist in 1855 when he established the Valley Farmer newspaper. Through his paper and frequent public lectures, Coleman became a major figure in Missouri farming. He parlayed his prominence into a political career, serving in the Missouri House of Representatives in 1866 as a unionist Democrat. He lost his bid for lieutenant governor in 1868 but served in that capacity in 1874.

The Civil War interrupted the publication of Coleman’s newspaper, and in 1868 he revived his journal as Coleman’s Rural World. The paper served as a major advocate of populist policies associated with the Grange in the 1870s and with the Farmers’ Alliance in the 1880s. Because Coleman reflected both the political interests and innovative possibilities of American farmers, President Grover Cleveland named Coleman United States commissioner of agriculture in 1885.

Throughout his tenure as commissioner, Coleman pushed for the expansion of his bureau and supported scientific agricultural research. In February 1889, Congress created the Department of Agriculture, and Coleman served as its first secretary for the remaining month of Cleveland’s term. Coleman returned to St. Louis after his service in Washington, editing his newspaper and participating in various farm improvement efforts.