Clinton Anderson

In October of 1917, an extremely sick young man sat in the lobby of an Albuquerque sanatorium waiting anxiously for a bed to open up so he could receive the medical care he desperately needed. The young man had an advanced case of tuberculosis and it was assumed he had less than five days to live (Baker, 1982). His situation was unquestionably distressing: he was alone, worlds away from the small South Dakotan community he was used to, and very ill. However, the young man from South Dakota proved early on that he could marshal the physical and mental strength required to defeat the virus racking his body.

Five days had passed, and the young man was still alive. He regained his strength slowly but steadily, spending nine months in the sanatorium until his body had fully recovered. It was this ability to resist and fight that characterized Clinton Anderson, the young man in the sanatorium who would go on to become a U.S. Senator, Congressional Representative and the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, a man whose contributions to agriculture and conservation are still essential to present day preservation.

Born on October 23, 1895 in the small town of Centerville, South Dakota, Anderson was the youngest of three children. He was born to Andrew Anderson and Hattie Presba, advocates of Populist thought who were hard working farmers and rarely frivolous. As Anderson grew up, he began to drift towards the bigger cities in the region. and seemed to enjoy this radical change of pace. After his high school graduation in 1913, he attended Mitchells Dakota Wesleyan University where he impressed faculty with his speaking and writing abilities. He was encouraged to develop his journalistic talent.

Anderson applied to attend larger universities, such as Colombia, but was not admitted despite his academic abilities. He eventually felt he was "too much of a hick" to be accepted to a 'big time' school and decided to attend the University of Michigan (Baker, 1982). While at Michigan, Anderson held several jobs including writing for the Michigan Daily and a campus magazine. Anderson's prospects continued to brighten as more people began to see his literary work. He was offered a job by an editor of The New York Sun at twenty-two, and was planning on moving to New York City to further his journalism career. However, tragedy struck and changed the path Anderson would follow. 

As Anderson prepared to make his move to New York, he received word that his father had been in an accident. The accident proved to be disabling for Andrew Anderson, and brought Clinton back to his hometown. He ended his college career and declined the opportunity to write in New York. Taking a job as the only reporter for the small local newspaper in Centerville, Anderson became known for his quick temper and deep sense of freedom as he reported as he wanted, and not as small town politics dictated.

However, Andersons health was less than perfect. He had been moderately sickly his entire life, and as America joined World War I he found that his health would not allow him to fight for his country. It was at this time that Anderson was diagnosed with TB, and was given less than six months to live. Because his family was unable to pay for the care he needed close to home, Anderson was forced to journey to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1917. It was there that Anderson defied doctors' predictions and recovered from his ailment. Still trying to advance his writing career, he spent the nine months in the New Mexico sanatorium writing articles, stories and poems.

There is a spiritual value to conservation, and wilderness typifies this. Wilderness is a demonstration by our people that we can put aside a portion of this which we have as a tribute to the Maker and say--this we will leave as we found it.

  Clinton Anderson

Though Anderson had originally planned on returning to South Dakota, he was offered a job at an Albuquerque newspaper and decided to stay. As a reporter, Anderson covered the state's legislative session, and began to draft amendments for bills and strategy for the Democratic Party. After the session ended, Anderson's trip home to his new love Henrietta was foiled by illness. This time he was stricken with smallpox. Upon his recovery, he went to work for the New Mexico Public Health Association, where he worked to create a better public health system. 

By 1921, Anderson had decided to remain in New Mexico. Henrietta moved to New Mexico to be with Anderson and his parents left South Dakota for good. During this time, as a journalist in Albuquerque he investigated the famed Teapot Dome scandal, and his visibility grew around the state. He married Henrietta in 1921, and in 1922 the couple began to dabble in mortgage investments and then, in 1923, founded an insurance business, the Clinton P. Anderson Agency. It was during this time that Anderson began to develop an interest and concern for the environment and conservation. Inspired by the ideals of Aldo Leopold, Anderson began to promote the idea that natural resources needed protection (especially from big business). His ideals were backed by science, and throughout his political career he was unfailingly progressive in his approach. Because of Anderson's contributions to Albuquerque, he was a well-known figure and was taken seriously within the political realm.

During the 1920's and 1930's, he was the Democratic Party chairman, the youngest chief in Rotary Club history (at age 36), and New Mexico state treasurer. He then served as New Mexico's Emergency Relief Director, the Mountain States Relief Coordinator, and finally the Western States Field Coordinator. Though eventually fired from the latter position due to problems with the national director, Harry Hopkins, (possibly for his tough standards; Anderson once fired 156 California employees in a single day), Anderson became well-known around the country. His influence grew during this time, and he held many national posts with the Democratic Party. However, his contributions to conservation largely began in 1941 when Anderson was elected to the U.S. Congress. 

Although Anderson's first two terms in Congress were focused on war issues, his stance on conservation and agriculture was so public that he was enlisted by President Truman to serve as the Secretary of Agriculture in 1945. He was the first person to be appointed directly to the cabinet from the House of Representatives. This was the beginning of a three year stint that would test Anderson greatly. During the war, Europe's food crisis affected America immensely, and Anderson was often blamed for depressed prices and the lack of agricultural output that developed as the war progressed. Although President Truman did not blame Anderson for the difficult circumstances of WWII, Anderson resigned from this post in 1948. 

Truman had encouraged Anderson to run for the U.S. Senate, saying that Anderson had done all he could do for his cabinet. Anderson won a Senatorial seat in the 1948 New Mexico election and was reelected again in 1954, 1960, and 1966. He and Lyndon Johnson, the President who would later sign the Wilderness Act into law, both joined the Senate as newcomers in January of 1949. During his Senate career, Anderson served on several committees, including the Committee of Interior and Insular Affairs; this committee gave Anderson the opportunity to make his imprint on conservation legislation. Committee hearings were often related to the environment, as the committee reviewed various water development projects, including the San Juan-Chama Reclamation Project and Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (HR 2352 and SB 72, 1960), and early Wilderness bills. Anderson sponsored the final Wilderness bill which passed the Senate by a vote of 73-12 on April 9, 1963, passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 373-1 on July 30, 1964, and was signed into law by President Johnson on September 3, 1964. Richard McArdle, chief of the Forest Service from 1952-1962, remarked, "Without Clinton Anderson there would have been no Wilderness Law." 

In addition to supporting the Wilderness Act, Anderson was unquestionably one of the principle architects of other environmental achievements that occurred during the eighty-eighth Congress (1963-1964), sometimes termed the "Conservation Congress." These other major accomplishments included the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Outdoor Recreation Act, the Public Land Law Review Commission, the Water Resources Research Act, and measures establishing Canyonlands National Park. During this time, Anderson also wrote several essays and articles, including "Protection of the Wilderness," "Conservation is our Constant Task" and "This We Hold Dear." Because of his emphasis on environmental preservation, Anderson often felt somewhat the odd man out, and in 1970 he wrote a book titled "An Outsider in the Senate."

While many reports show that he was no outcast in the Senate, he was set apart partially because of his promotion of civil rights and the environment. Richard Baker (the author of "Conservation Politics," a book on Anderson's achievements) wrote, "Throughout Clinton Anderson's Senate career, he displayed characteristics of balance and perspective that came to few legislators. With a sharp eye on New Mexico's needs, this unusually complex man never lost sight of the broader natural resources conservation." In effectively advancing the nation's interests, he created an environment in which his state could also flourish. His receipt of the 1963 National Conservation Award confirmed the singularity of this achievement.

Wilderness is an anchor to windward. Knowing it is there, we can also know that we are still a rich Nation, tending our resources as we should — not a people in despair searching every last nook and cranny of our land for a board of lumber, a barrel of oil, a blade of grass, or a tank of water.

— Clinton Anderson

Anderson maintained a level of focus on environmental protection that made him a leader in the movement. His contributions to the 1949 Agricultural Act affect American farm policy and international trade today. The 1949 act called for parity (prices for agricultural products reflect the costs of goods and services to farmers) in the farm market. This system eventually evolved into a network of subsidies, some of which encourage farming practices that protect land and water. Anderson's input to the Bureau of Reclamation affected water rights and usage in many Western states, and the standards that were set in his era still hold true, with amendments and provisions as time required. Anderson was a driving force behind passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, which designated nearly 9.1 million acres of wilderness. In 1998 a bill to commemorate Anderson's contribution to the Wilderness Act was passed that named a certain area of the Gila Mountains "The Senator Clinton P. Anderson Overlook." 

After four terms in the Senate, Anderson chose not to run again. Anderson passed away on November 11, 1975. Anderson had a lasting impact on environmental policy and wilderness protection. Anderson focused on those things which all human beings need: water, productive agriculture, and a healthy, functioning environment. 


Kestenbaum, L. (07/1/96). The Political Graveyard.

Pickens, D. (2000). Anderson, Clinton Presba. American Council of Learned Societies.

Lipton, K., & Pollack, S. (1996). Major Agricultural and Trade Legislation, 1933-96. Provisions of the Federal Agriculture and Reform Act of 1996.

Baker, R. (1982). Conservation Politics. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.