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In 1914 when Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, it was the culmination of five years of debate over how agricultural extension work should be organized. The legislation was first proposed in 1909 as the McLaughlin bill, which would have provided both grants and matching funds for the states to administer the extension service through their land-grant colleges. Most notably this bill left no role for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), despite the part it was already playing in extension and demonstration work. Congressional opponents of the bill in Congress argued that the most effective method for extension work was demonstration work as pioneered by Seaman A. Knapp through the USDA. Adding to the difficulty in passing federal legislation was the continued friction between state land-grant colleges and federal extension work. In 1914 Secretary of Agriculture James Houston entered the debate. As a former president of a land-grant college, Houston brought together land-grant colleges and the USDA to arrange a compromise that would become the Smith-Lever Act.
The cooperative system planned by Houston rested on two premises. First, Knapp's demonstration work would be the most effective means of transferring new ideas to farmers. Second, federal assistance would be necessary for the success of the Extension Service. The proposed system would have three distinct levels. It would rely on the county agent system based on Knapp's experiences and primary control would lie at the state level with aid from the USDA Cooperative Extension Service. In 1914 Asbury F. Lever of South Carolina introduced a bill in the U. S. House of Representatives based on Houston's plan. Simultaneously Hoke Smith of Georgia introduced a similar bill in the Senate. The Lever bill passed the House with only seven dissenting votes, and Senator Smith moved to substitute it for his own. One major issue remained unresolved, however. Northern supporters of the bill wanted federal money to be split equally between the white land-grant colleges founded following the first Morrill Act of 1862 and the African American land-grant colleges founded after the second Morrill Act of 1890. Southerners threatened to withdraw support if the equal funding provision was added. Facing strong opposition, Northern congressmen backed down, and the bill passed without the equal funding provision.
Each state's governor and legislature had to accept the federal act before it could be implemented in its jurisdiction. In North Carolina this occurred in 1915. Under the Smith-Lever Act, the Home Demonstration program and agricultural clubs (and later 4-H) were made part of the Agricultural Extension Service (later the Cooperative Extension Service.)
Readers may also be interested in our essays on Demonstration work and 4-H and Home Demonstration among African Americans.
Clark, James W. Clover All Over: North Carolina 4-H in Action. Raleigh, NC: Office of 4-H and Youth, North Carolina State University, 1984.
Wessel, Thomas, and Marilyn Wessel. 4-H: An American Idea 1900–1980. Maryland: National 4-H Council, 1982.
[author: Amy Manor]