When J. Sterling Morton left Michigan for the wind-swept prairies of Nebraska in 1854, he found few trees there. He became an ardent tree planter and in 1872 founded Arbor Day to encourage others to follow his lead.
The annual event—April 26 this year—is a time to praise the beauty and emphasize the importance of trees to the environment. But we should also learn a little about the man who gave us this special day in the first place.
J. Sterling Morton had another motive behind his Arbor Day advocacy. He detested the protective tariff that enriched the U.S. lumber industry and depleted native forests. He wanted to break the power of the tariff. So his secondary Arbor Day message was: Plant a tree and strike a blow for free trade.
Morton later got the chance to preach his doctrines from a national pulpit as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, from 1893 to 1897. Democrat Cleveland was an advocate of bare-bones government and, like Morton, a foe of public handouts that favored one group of citizens over another.
Before that, Morton had risen to prominence as the fiery editor of the Nebraska City News. He applied wit and sarcasm both in his newspaper pages and in oral debates.
Morton got to Nebraska by way of boyhood homes in Monroe and Detroit, where he chafed under the restrictions of his pious parents. He attended the University of Michigan until kicked out for "manifest contempt of the authorities." He learned journalism at the Detroit Free Press before striking out for Nebraska in 1854.
As a Democrat in a primarily Republican region, he was defeated in most of several attempts at elected office. But he had the personality and the platform to keep vital issues before the public. He denounced economic favoritism in all its forms, especially trade protectionism.
Morton used his love of trees to attack high tariffs. He wanted more trees in the ground as a wedge against lumber interests. Americans, he correctly argued, were paying a "bounty" in inflated costs of lumber because of the protective tariff, which amounted to a burdensome tax on consumers. It is imposed, he wrote, "not to get a revenue into the public treasury, but to give an artificial value to home-made lumber, and to shut out competition."
Protectionism, Morton believed, amounted to political partiality and allowed American industries to grow fat with inefficiency. Free trade lowered consumer prices through the efficiencies of free markets. Morton used his vice presidency of the American Free Trade League as yet another platform to spread this message.
As Secretary of Agriculture, Morton battled to keep government small and fair. He was appalled to find that most of his budget was a "gratuity, paid by money raised from all the people, and bestowed upon a few people." He halted subsidies specific to sugar-beet growers on the grounds that "the power to tax was never vested in a Government for the purpose of building up one class at the expense of other classes."
He cut the free-seed program to farmers, which had soared in cost over the years, asking, "Is it a function of government to make gratuitous distribution of any material thing?" He fought against "paternal lawmaking," saying that if his department was "to be conducted in the spirit of paternalism, the sooner it is abolished the better for the United States." He rid his staff of patronage jobs. In his four years as Agriculture Secretary, he operated at almost 20 percent under his allotted budget.
But the tide in the national Democratic Party was turning toward special treatment for favored groups. These forces, under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, captured the party in 1896 from the wing led by Cleveland and Morton. Morton retired to start his own newspaper, The Conservative, and kept attacking protective tariffs until his death in 1902.
Morton called his home in Nebraska City "Arbor Lodge" for its lavish tree plantings. He gave us Arbor Day to promote the value of trees, but Arbor Day should also remind us of J. Sterling Morton's foundational political philosophy: equal rights for all and government favoritism to none.
(Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)