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James Wilson (Secretary of Agriculture)

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James Wilson (Secretary of Agriculture)

James Wilson
4th United States Secretary of Agriculture
In office
March 6, 1897 – March 5, 1913
President William McKinley
Theodore Roosevelt
William Howard Taft
Woodrow Wilson
Preceded by Julius S. Morton
Succeeded by David F. Houston
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Iowa's 5th district
In office
March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1877
Preceded by Francis W. Palmer
Succeeded by Rush Clark
In office
March 4, 1883 – March 3, 1885
Preceded by William G. Thompson
Succeeded by Benjamin T. Frederick
Personal details
Born (1835-08-16)August 16, 1835
Ayrshire, Scotland
Died August 26, 1920(1920-08-26) (aged 85)
Traer, Iowa, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Esther Wilbur Wilson (1863 – 1892, her death)
Children Esther May Wilson
Peter McCosh Wilson
Flora H. Wilson
Jasper Wilson
Alma mater Grinnell College
Profession Politician, Lawyer

James "Tama Jim" Wilson (August 16, 1835 – August 26, 1920) was a Scottish-born American politician who served as United States Secretary of Agriculture for sixteen years during three presidencies, from 1897 to 1913. He holds the record as the longest-serving United States Cabinet member, and if one counts his day and a half under Woodrow Wilson, the only cabinet member to serve under four consecutive Presidents.


  • Personal background and family 1
  • Elective office 2
  • Secretary of Agriculture 3
  • Later life, death and legacy 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Personal background and family

Wilson was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on August 16, 1835. One of 14 children, he grew up in a farming community near the birthplace of Robert Burns.[1]

His family emigrated to America in 1852, settling in Connecticut before moving to Iowa in 1855, establishing a farm near Traer in Tama County. He attended the public schools and Iowa College (now Grinnell College) in Grinnell, Iowa. He married Esther Wilbur in May 1863. Together they had four children, Esther May, Peter McCosh, Flora H., and Jasper. Esther died on August 3, 1892; Wilson remained a widower for the remainder of his life.

Elective office

Representative James Wilson

Wilson was elected to the

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Francis W. Palmer
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Iowa's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1877
Succeeded by
Rush Clark
Preceded by
William G. Thompson
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Iowa's 5th congressional district

March 4, 1883 – March 3, 1885
Succeeded by
Benjamin T. Frederick
Political offices
Preceded by
Julius S. Morton
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture
Served under: William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft

March 6, 1897 – March 5, 1913
Succeeded by
David F. Houston

External links

  1. ^ Department of Animal Science. "James A. "Tama Jim" Wilson". Iowa State University. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  2. ^ Special Collections Department. "James A. "Tama" Wilson Papers, RS 9/1/11". Iowa State University. Retrieved 2013-10-07. 
  3. ^ Milner, John D. (June 22, 1973). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination: U.S. Department of Agriculture Administration Building" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-05-10. 
  4. ^ "Department People". USDA, June 25, 1943, p.3.


Wilson Hall, a residence hall at Iowa State University, was named in his honor, as was Washington State University's Wilson Hall (renamed Wilson-Short Hall in 2009), originally built as the college's agriculture building. His home, The Farm House (Knapp-Wilson House), now on the Iowa State University campus grounds, has been a National Historic Landmark since 1964. Wilson has also been commemorated in Washington, D.C. by a bridge linking the U.S. Department of Agriculture Administration Building to the U.S. Department of Agriculture South Building across Independence Avenue.[3] In 1943, retired USDA artist Royal Charles Steadman painted a portrait of Wilson and gave the portrait to the department to hang in the Wilson arch between the Administration and South buildings.[4]

After leaving office at age 78, Wilson retired in Iowa. He died in Traer, Iowa on August 26, 1920, ten days after celebrating his eighty-fifth birthday. He was interred next at the wife in Buckingham Cemetery, Traer, Iowa.

Later life, death and legacy

His tenure as Secretary of Agriculture is known as a period of modernization of agricultural methods. He also organized greater food inspection methods, as well as great improvement of many roads across the country.

Wilson rose to national prominence in early 1897 when newly elected President William McKinley nominated him as his Secretary for Agriculture. During sixteen consecutive years of Republican administrations, Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft retained him in that position. It was not until March 1913, following the election of a Democratic president (Woodrow Wilson) that Wilson left that office. In all, Wilson served as Secretary of Agriculture from March 6, 1897 to March 5, 1913 — the longest duration served by any American cabinet official. The length of Wilson's tenure is attributed to not only the same political party occupying the White House in three consecutive administrations, but also the similarity in political philosophy among the three Presidents under which Wilson served. Given the state of national politics which developed in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is unlikely any Cabinet member will exceed Wilson's mark.

Plaque to Wilson inside the USDA Building, where a pedestrian arch is named for him

Secretary of Agriculture

Through a prolonged evidentiary proceeding in 1883, followed by filibusters that delayed resolution of the contest until the final hours of the Forty-eighth Congress, Wilson's Republican Party colleagues enabled him to retain in office until the final minutes before the end of the final session. Then, Wilson consented to end the filibuster against a vote on the contest, because it was also blocking action on a popular bill to enable former President Ulysses S. Grant to enjoy the financial benefits of a military retirement. On March 4, 1885, with Grover Cleveland's inauguration festivities already starting, the House declared Frederick the winner of the 1882 race, unseated Wilson, seated Frederick, passed the Grant retirement bill, then adjourned. Returning to Iowa from Washington for the second time, Wilson rejoined the faculty at Iowa State, where he would serve as Professor (now Dean) of Agriculture and director of the agricultural experiment station from 1890 to 1897.

In 1882, he ran for Congress for the third time, this time against Democrat Benjamin T. Frederick. Wilson seemingly defeated Frederick in a very close race, but Frederick soon contested the election in the U.S. House. Wilson had been issued an election certificate by the State of Iowa, enabling him to be seated during the contest. The 1882 elections gave Frederick's Democratic Party control of the House.

Wilson's former home in Washington, D.C.

In 1872, he was elected to represent Iowa's 5th congressional district as a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives. It was during this time that he became known as Tama Jim to distinguish him from the Iowa member of the senate, James F. Wilson. In 1874, Wilson was re-elected, serving a second term, but returned to Iowa in 1877. That year he was appointed to the Iowa State Railway Commission, where he served for six years.

Wilson was also appointed to the Board of Trustees (now Regents) of Iowa's public higher educational institutions, serving from 1870 to 1874. [2]

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