James Wilson was born on August 15, 1835, in Ayrshire, Scotland, as the eldest child of a large farming family. At 16 he immigrated to the United States with his parents, eventually settling on a farm near Traer, Iowa. Wilson acquired his own farm near Traer in 1861 and also taught school, edited a newspaper, and held local political positions. A staunch Republican, he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1867 and served as Speaker of the House during his third term. Wilson was elected to the United States House of Representative from Iowa’s fifth district in 1873. During this time he was given the nickname “Tama Jim” to distinguish him from another Iowan in Congress, Senator James F. “Jefferson Jim” Wilson. They were unrelated and the nicknames came from their home counties in Iowa.
Wilson served in Congress from 1873-1877 and 1883-1885. When not representing Iowa, he continued farming, worked on the Iowa State Board of Railroad Commissioners, and wrote for various farm journals. In 1891, Wilson joined the faculty of Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) as a professor of agriculture and was appointed director of the university’s agricultural experiment station. Wilson took an indefinite leave of absence from the university in 1897 when he was named Secretary of Agriculture by President McKinley. He rose to national prominence in this position and was in the Cabinet for three consecutive Republican presidential administrations, including Theodore Roosevelt's. Wilson’s sixteen years as a cabinet official make him the longest serving cabinet secretary in American history.
Wilson oversaw the modernization of agriculture in the United States, responding to scientific and industrial change by remaking and expanding the Department of Agriculture. Wilson added experiment stations, promoted agricultural education, began farm demonstration work, and supported home economics. He brought greater scientific rigor to agricultural science, setting the stage for American leadership in the field throughout the 20th century. Wilson encouraged the search for plants and animals that could be profitably introduced into the United States, including durum wheat, Egyptian cotton, and mohair goats. After the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906, he helped implement food standards and inspection methods. Under Wilson, the Department of Agriculture expanded from 2,400 employees to around 11,000 and the country’s agricultural balance of trade increased from $23 million to $425 million.
Wilson was a lifelong Republican and supported President Taft for the Republican nomination and presidential election in 1912. With the election of Woodrow Wilson, Tama Jim returned to Iowa to farm and teach at Iowa Agricultural College. He was also elected president of the National Agricultural Society. Wilson passed away at his 1,200 acre farm in Tama County, Iowa, on August 26, 1920.
“James Wilson.” Miller Center. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.
La Forte, Robert S. “Wilson, James.” American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 23. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Lee, Nancy. "Wilson, James "Tama Jim."" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2013.