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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 557

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This is the grave of the execrable Richard Olney.

Born in 1835 to a rich family in Oxford, Massachusetts, Olney dedicated his life to serving the needs of fellow rich guys like himself. His father was a textile mill owner and banker. The wormy mushy apple didn’t fall from the tree of poison with this one. Olney went to Brown (of course), graduating in 1856 and then went on to Harvard Law, finishing there in 1858. He went into law doing the one thing he cared about–protecting corporations. He started a practice and did very well. He was no doubt very good at protecting employers from any responsibility for anything they did. The 1905 Lochner decision is infamous, but really it just reaffirmed well over a half-century of corporate law that allowed employers to do whatever they wanted without a shred of responsibility for society. Olney was very much part of that world, one he would always defend, to the extent of mustering state power and violence to enforce it.

Olney became especially known for his work with the railroads, which for as revolutionary as they were, also were the most hated industry of the era for many very good reasons. He briefly dabbled in politics, serving a term in the Massachusetts statehouse, but thought his private practice was more worthy of him and it was certainly more lucrative, which is what he really cared about. In the 1880s, Olney’s railroad work only grew. He became the general counsel for the Chicago, St. Paul, and Milwaukee Railroad, among other clients. That would soon make him infamous.

In 1892, Grover Cleveland won election to his second term. I strongly dismiss “both sides are the same” political rhetoric. But if it was ever true, it applied to Cleveland, who turned his back on almost everything the Democratic Party stood for except for the racism and discomfort with high tariffs. This guy was the ultimate in corporate stooges. So who was a high-placed Democrat who could enforce the will of the corporations for Cleveland, with the hope that they would start supporting Democrats more often? Richard Olney. But did Olney give up his jobs working for railroads while attorney general? Ha, ha, what, you think this is a guy with ethics? Of course not! He made $8,000 a year as AG and $10,000 from the railroads. In fact, when he took over as AG, one of his railroad friends wrote him and asked if something couldn’t be done about that damned new Interstate Commerce Commission, which now regulated the rails. Olney, thinking far ahead to the days of the modern Republican Party with its corporate capture of regulatory agencies, replied:

The Commission… is, or can be made, of great use to the railroads. It satisfies the popular clamor for a government supervision of the railroads, at the same time that that supervision is almost entirely nominal. Further, the older such a commission gets to be, the more inclined it will be found to take the business and railroad view of things.… The part of wisdom is not to destroy the Commission, but to utilize it.

In 1894, workers at George Pullman‘s company town went on strike. The American Railway Union, led by a charismatic man named Eugene Debs, called for a boycott of Pullman’s cars in support. This effectively shut down many of the railroads in the country. It cost railroads profits. For Richard Olney, this was unacceptable anarchy, a threat to the future of the nation, not to mention his own paycheck. So Olney took it upon himself to personally crush the strike. First, he tried legal means. He significantly pushed forward the use of the injunction to bust unions, ordering district attorneys to seek injunctions from federal courts to use against the ARU. To do this, he perverted the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, designed to limit railroad monopolies, to bust the union. He ordered the Chicago district attorney to find a way to indict Debs. He deputized federal marshals around the country to serve the rail interests and make sure they ran. In Helena, Montana alone, not exactly Chicago or Philadelphia, he deputized 150 men. This was pure strikebreaking. And then, when none of this really worked, he convinced Cleveland to call in the military. The U.S. Army became the hired police of the very railroad companies Olney worked for. Twelve thousand troops descended on the nation’s rail centers. Illinois governor John Altgeld personally and publicly objected, noting that the strike was completely peaceful. Well, it was until Olney got involved. Thirteen strikes died thanks to Olney and his capitalist buddies. The greatest villain in the Pullman Strike, other than perhaps George Pullman himself, was Richard Olney.

In the aftermath, Olney did nothing but get himself rewarded. In 1895, Cleveland named him Secretary of State. He pushed for the nation to have full embassies instead of just legations, which actually mattered in terms of American respect abroad. When the British threatened to go to war with Venezuela over unpaid debts, which disturbed those who took the Monroe Doctrine seriously and was used for justification for greater intervention in Latin America by imperialists such as Theodore Roosevelt, Olney did some work to mediate the conflict and keep the British out of South America, pushing forward a new and more aggressive form of American dominance. Interestingly, he did somewhat regret that as he aged and became a fan of William Jennings Bryan‘s isolationist foreign policy in the years before his death.

In 1897, Olney went back to the law and hung out with his rich guy friends for the rest of his miserable awful life. Wilson sought to drag him out of his corporate world again, asking him to be ambassador to Great Britain in 1913, but he refused and then again when he was offered the position of governor of the newly created Federal Reserve in 1914.

Olney was also personally an absolutely awful human being, a festering sore to his own family. People commented on how he refused to have friends. He was known for beating and kicking dogs. Once, when a cow wandered onto his tennis court, he ordered it be executed. His own biographer stated about Olney in college that he “seems to have given vent to his feelings from time to time by physically assaulting people who angered him.” When he let servants go, which he did frequently, he refused to write letters for them to get another job. His daughter attended her father-in-law’s funeral without his permission. Olney refused to ever see her again. He lived over 30 years after that and, although they both lived in Boston, he never saw her, except once. He went to the theater. She was seated nearby. He walked out. This scumbag’s death finally came in 1917, not near soon enough.

In recent decades, we have a trio of truly horrific people be attorney general: John Mitchell, Ed Meese, and Bill Barr are quite the high bar. Richard Olney clears it, or at least matches it.

Richard Olney is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other attorney generals of the Gilded Age, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Judson Harmon is in Cincinnati and Joseph McKenna, later a Supreme Court justice, is in Washington, D.C. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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