Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Julius S. Morton (1893–1897): Secretary of Agriculture

The son of a general store owner, Julius Sterling Morton was born in the village of Adams in Jefferson County, New York, in 1832. Soon after his birth, his family moved to Michigan. He attended the University of Michigan but was dismissed in 1854 prior to graduation; the faculty nevertheless conferred his degree in 1858.

After his dismissal from college, Morton moved to Nebraska Territory near Nebraska City. He served as a Democrat in the territory’s government and was appointed its secretary by President James Buchanan in 1858.

While his political career declined immediately after the Civil War, Morton remained active in Nebraska’s horticulture movement. He helped found the Nebraska State Horticulture Society in 1869 and encouraged Nebraskans to plant trees to stop soil erosion on farms. Morton suggested a public holiday in support of tree planting, which the Nebraska state legislature adopted in 1885 as April 22, Morton’s birthday. The legislature followed Morton’s suggestion and named the holiday Arbor Day, and it remained his proudest accomplishment.

After a triumphant return to state politics in the 1880s, Grover Cleveland named Morton secretary of agriculture in 1893. While in office, Morton ran a tight department and instituted civil service reform measures. He tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the Agriculture Department’s distribution of free seeds through Congress and slashed expenditures and staff.

A Gold Democrat, he resisted the party’s turn toward fellow Nebraskan William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and voted for William McKinley. Morton spent the rest of his life supporting conservative political causes and writing a history of his native state. Julius Morton died in 1902.