Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

James Wilson (1909–1913): Secretary of Agriculture

The longest-serving cabinet secretary in the history of America -- sixteen years -- James Wilson was born on August 16, 1835 in Ayrshire, Scotland. Wilson migrated to the East Coast briefly before settling in Iowa, attending public schools there, and graduating from Iowa (now Grinnell) College. By 1866, he was elected as a Republican to serve in the Iowa House of Representatives. Toward the end of his term, Wilson led the House as Speaker (1870-1871) while acting as regent of the state university from 1870-1874. He decided to enter the national political scene, representing Iowa during two stints in the U.S. House of Representatives (1873-1877 and 1883-1885).

While in Congress, Wilson was nicknamed "Tama Jim" to distinguish him from Senator James Falconer Wilson, also from Iowa. His love of agriculture would lead him back to Iowa, where he became director of the agricultural experiment station and professor of agriculture at Iowa Agricultural College in Ames (1891-1897).

Wilson was named secretary of agriculture by President McKinley in 1897 and would remain in that post to serve Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Wilson remade the Department of Agriculture, changing it from a small data-collecting bureau into one that embraced all areas of agriculture, plant and animal studies, horticulture, and farming. Under this direction, the department would make great strides in the areas of farm management, land cultivation, soil investigation, and forest preservation.

After stepping down from office in March 1913, Wilson returned to Iowa to study agriculture. He died on 26 August 1920, on his own farm, and is remembered as one of the great figures in American farming.