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The Department of Everything Else






Getting Organized

Western Emphasis

current topic Nationwide Concerns

Early Problems

The Conservation Movement

Parks and the Park Service

The Geological Survey

Managing the Public Domain

Fish and Wildlife

Indians and the BIA

Territorial Affairs

20th Century Highlights

An Imperfect Anthology




Nationwide Concerns
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Nationwide Concerns

Despite its western emphasis, the Interior Department from its outset conducted major programs of nationwide application. One such program, which built up to enormous magnitude and consequence in the 1880s, was the distribution of pensions to veterans of the Union armies and navy. In 1885 there were a million and a half such veterans, and they had discovered that their national organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, had uses beyond the purely fraternal. As Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler phrased it, if the old soldiers acted in unison, they could "make politicians dance like peas on a hot shovel." [21] Reflecting both the awesome political power of the G.A.R. and the enduring gratitude of the postwar generation toward the men in blue who had saved the Union, increasingly liberal pension legislation emerged from Congress. After one especially generous act a commentator marveled, "141,466 men who had not realized that they were disabled until the Government offered a premium of a thousand dollars or more for the discovery of aches and disabilities, made application." [22]

Interior's Pension Bureau administered the pension laws. By 1890 it numbered more than 6,000 agents, medical examiners, and clerks. About one-third of these served in Washington, domiciled in a huge brick edifice on Judiciary Square designed and built by Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs in 1882-85. ("It's too bad the damn thing is fireproof," Gen. William T. Sherman reputedly grumped of "Meigs' Old Red Barn." [23] Now much admired, it houses the National Building Museum.) Undermanned, buffeted by political winds, hounded by swarms of pension attorneys, tormented by fraudulent claimants, the bureau's staff nevertheless earned an overall reputation for honesty and faithful attention to duty.

The successive Commissioners of Pensions were usually disabled veterans, and some were highly political. The legless and voluble "Corporal" James Tanner was especially brazen in his efforts to increase pensions administratively, "though I may wring from the hearts of some the prayer, 'God help the surplus!'" A critic marveled at "the style in which he mounted the housetops and summoned the people of the United States to watch him while he made the wheels go round, or while he pulled a string and dangled the Secretary of the Interior at the other end." [24] Secretary John W. Noble (1889-93), himself a popular G.A.R. leader, dangled on the string no longer than it took to get rid of one of the most irrepressibly insubordinate figures in American political history.

Interior's fourth major bureau was the Patent Office. Reflecting the burgeoning technology of the industrial revolution, the protection of inventions by government patents assumed growing importance in the last half of the 19th century. By 1890 patent officials received more than 41,000 applications and issued more than 26,000 patents each year. [25]

Like other bureau heads, the Commissioner of Patents, often a former member of Congress, occupied his office by reason of political qualifications. But he presided over a corps of some 500 patent examiners and clerks who owed their appointments and promotions to competitive examination. The Patent Office, in fact, led most government bureaus in succumbing to the civil service merit system, for the highly technical nature of the work demanded trained professionals rather than patronage-seekers. Rapid personnel turnover aggravated by low salaries and a staff too small to keep the backlog of applications at manageable proportions constituted the chief problems. Even so, proceeding methodically and unspectacularly according to clearly established law and policy, the Patent Office maintained a record of quiet competence and consistent accomplishment.

From its inception Interior adopted and nurtured activities that expanded to justify the creation of separate agencies, inspiring the sobriquet "Mother of Departments." The agricultural division of the Patent Office became the Department of Agriculture in 1882 and a full cabinet agency in 1889. The Bureau of Labor, established in Interior in 1884, became the Department of Labor in 1888. With other components, including Interior's Census Bureau, it won cabinet status in 1903 as the Department of Commerce and Labor (split into two cabinet departments in 1913). The Commerce Department inherited the Patent Office in 1925. The Interstate Commerce Commission reported to the Secretary of the Interior for the first two years of its life, 1887-89, before becoming an independent agency. In 1930 the Bureau of Pensions went to the new Veterans Administration, which became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989. In 1977 several Interior functions helped form another new cabinet agency, the Department of Energy.

The forerunner of today's Department of Education had a long career in Interior. In 1867 Congress created an independent entity of the same name to collect and disseminate information on the progress of education. Two years later it was placed under Interior and designated the Bureau of Education. In 1929 it was demoted from a "bureau" to an "office" to counter any impression that it might have or seek direct responsibility for this primary concern of state and local government. The Secretary of the Interior's annual report that year took pains to note that the Office of Education was "primarily an establishment for educational research and promotion" with "no administrative functions except those connected with the expenditure of the funds appropriated by the Federal Government for the assistance of colleges of agriculture and the mechanic arts in the several States and Territories, and those connected with the education, support, and medical relief of the natives of Alaska." [26] Soon afterward Alaskan native services moved to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and in 1939 the Office of Education left Interior for what later became (in 1953) the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This in turn spawned the Department of Education in 1979.

From its first days Interior bore a special relationship to the District of Columbia--one involving the department in activities that must have made some Secretaries feel like the "Lord High Everything Else" of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado. Among the Secretary's federal city responsibilities, at one time or another, were public buildings (1849-67 and 1933-39), parks (1849-67 and 1933 to date), police (1849-73), jail (1849-72), a street railway linking Washington and Georgetown (1862-1910), a railroad bridge across the Potomac (1863-67), and operation of the city's water supply (1859-67). He became involved in the capital's health, education, and welfare through oversight of the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, now Gallaudet College (1857.1940); the Columbia Hospital for Women (1866-81); Freedmen's Hospital (1874-1940); the National Hospital for the Insane, or St. Elizabeths (1852-1940); and Howard University (1867-1940). The Architect of the Capitol, charged with construction and maintenance of the United States Capitol and related buildings and grounds, reported to the Secretary of the Interior in 1851-53, 1862-1902, and 1921-22.

Another early Interior function anticipated a major role of the Smithsonian Institution. The Patent Office had a commodious hall for displaying patent models, and in 1854 Congress authorized its custody and care of the natural specimens and artifacts from Charles Wilkes's South Seas expedition. This collection was supplemented by objects from other government-backed explorations and by such national treasures as the Declaration of Independence. A series of acts beginning in 1857 contemplated transfer of this incipient national museum to the Smithsonian (established in 1846), but the shift was not completed until 1879.

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