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Getting Organized
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Getting Organized

Sec. Thomas Ewing
Thomas Ewing, First Secretary (1849-1850)

For the first Secretary of the Interior, President Taylor turned to Thomas Ewing, a sturdy, colorful product of rural Ohio. Frontier lawyer, U.S. Senator, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, Ewing had long been a force in Ohio's Whig councils. Youthful labor in a salt works had endowed him with a powerful physique and the sobriquet of "Salt-Boiler." Impressive mental faculties earned him the compliment "Logician of the West." Ewing's foster son and future son-in-law, Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman, served with the U.S. Army in California. [8]

As one of his first tasks, the new Secretary pursued that perennial quest of Washington bureaucrats: adequate office space. The Secretary of the Treasury wanted the Land Office to vacate the top floor of the Treasury Building, and the Secretary of War pressed for the rooms occupied by the Indian Bureau in his headquarters at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue and by the Pension Office in the Winder Building across 17th Street. The splendid Greek Revival edifice being erected for the Patent Office on F Street between 7th and 9th offered hope for the future, but only its south wing had been finished (in 1840). While the big bureaus continued as unwanted tenants in their former departments, the Secretary and the smaller components of Interior rented space on the second floor of a brick office building owned by financier William Wilson Corcoran at 15th and F streets (site of the present Hotel Washington).

Completion of the east wing of the Patent Office building in 1852 finally provided the Secretary with suitable quarters, and the two remaining wings, finished in 1856 and 1867, housed additional components of his domain. Although personnel continued to work elsewhere in the city, from 1852 to 1917 the imposing Patent Office building, one of America's most distinguished architectural monuments, served as headquarters of the Department of the Interior. [9] (Today the building houses the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American Art.)

First Interior Bldg
The First Interior Building, 1852-1917

Interior commanded a huge patronage reservoir, and Secretary Ewing launched such a wholesale replacement of officeholders in the bureaus he inherited that opposition newspapers branded him "Butcher Ewing." Heated controversies with congressional Democrats over his spoilsmanship prevented him from devoting much attention to organizing his department. The task of setting an administrative course for the fledgling cabinet agency fell to subsequent Secretaries.

Zachary Taylor's administration lasted scarcely 17 months. After sweltering though an Independence Day celebration on the Washington Monument grounds, the President overindulged in cherries and ice milk and, seized by cholera morbus, died on July 9, 1850. In the new cabinet formed by Millard Fillmore, Interior fell to Thomas McKennan of Pennsylvania. He served all of 11 days before discovering that his "peculiar nervous temperament" unfitted him for the pressures of the office. Fillmore then turned to Alexander H. H. Stuart, a youthful Virginian of education, culture, and probity. Remaining for two and a half years, Secretary Stuart gave order and direction to a department born in tempestuous partisanship. "The spirit of his administration was not so much that of reform as it was that of operation according to clear rules and standards," a student of Interior's early years has written. "Considering the administrative chaos common in government offices of that day, this achievement of Stuart deserves recognition." [10]

Stuart's successors during that antebellum decade--Robert McClelland of Michigan (1853-57) and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi (1857-61)--were conscientious and capable men who did little to change his course. Thompson's departure two months before the end of President James Buchanan's administration reflected the dissolution of the Union: after Mississippi seceded and the Secretary of War sent a relief expedition to Fort Sumter. Thompson went home to serve his state and the Confederacy.

"Everything upon the face of God's earth will go into the Home Department," John O. Calhoun had prophesied. [11] As Interior took shape under its early leaders and in response to congressional mandates, it came more and more to deserve the appelation of "Great Miscellany" often given it. Serious observers and satirists alike regularly decried an absence of unifying purpose in the seemingly disparate collection of offices assembled under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior. "A slop bucket for executive fragments," one editorialist labeled the department. A "hydra-headed monster," said another. [12]

Yet if Interior lacked the clear definition other departments enjoyed, it nevertheless played a role in national affairs larger than the sum of its parts. In one way or another, all the responsibilities entrusted to it had to do with the internal development of the nation or the welfare of its people. On this common ground the large, permanent bureaus united with the smaller, transitory offices. The former gave the department strength and continuity, while the latter dramatized its versatility as a force in American government. For by offering a repository for functions that did not fit neatly elsewhere, Interior enabled Congress more easily to accept and discharge responsibilities for the internal needs of a rapidly growing nation. Some of the offices created for these functions were dismantled after completing their missions. Others, charged with missions of continuing relevance, endured. Still others matured and ultimately split off into full-blown cabinet departments.

A sampling of tasks assigned the Interior Department suggests the scope of its cares in the last half of the 19th century. [13] These ranged from the conduct of the decennial census to the colonization of freed slaves in Haiti, from the exploration of western wilderness to oversight of the District of Columbia jail, from the regulation of territorial governments to construction of the national capital's water system, from management of hospitals and universities to maintenance of public parks. Such functions, together with basic responsibilities for Indians, public lands, patents, and pensions, gave Interior officials an extraordinary array of concerns.

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