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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 863

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This is the grave of Thomas Alexander Scott.

Born in 1823 in Peters Township, Pennsylvania, Scott would become one of the most vile men of the early Gilded Age. He got involved in railroad work at a young age and by 1850 worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He rose fast into executive positions. In 1858, he was named General Superintendent of the railroad and would perfect the art of greed and worker killing. He hired a young Scottish immigrant secretary named Andrew Carnegie and taught him everything he knew about pure, untrammeled greed. Carnegie would learn well. Scott was more of a financier than a manager. He had a good manager as co-partner, J. Edgar Thomson. This allowed Scott to do his magic, which like any good early Gilded Age railroad guy was extremely sketchy financial maneuvers, corruption, ripping off both shareholders and the government, and anything else to make money.

What men like Scott and Thomson and Carnegie had by the 1860s was knowledge of the necessary infrastructure to fight the Civil War. The politicians didn’t know anything. They were enamored of these newly rich guys anyway and wanted to be them. This is what allowed someone like Jay Cooke to both finance the war and steal a tremendous amount of money on the principle that whatever was good for Cooke was good for the nation. Scott was a step lower than Cooke, but still an important guy with a lot of power. Scott got a commission as Colonel of Volunteers to be in command of the rail and telegraph lines for the Union Army. How he secured this tells you everything you need to know–the incredibly corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron was his personal friend. Cameron was so awful and corrupt that Lincoln got rid of him, which given the overall level of corruption during the war was a remarkable thing, especially given how weak Lincoln was within the Republican Party until the very end of the war. Cameron then got Scott appointed Assistant Secretary of War! To be fair here, unlike Cameron, Scott was actually reasonably capable and did a fair job organizing supply chains for the Union Army.

After the Civil War, Scott sought to make bank and did so successfully. He helped pioneer the classic moves of the era–buy state legislatures, buy members of Congress, buy newspaper editors, and use all your power of money to make more money through lies and propaganda by your bought editors. What Scott learned from Cameron was to keep the corruption quiet, which Cameron was too stupid to do. So he worked behind the scenes quite effectively. He wanted to build the long-desired transcontinental line across the South to California, where he was investing heavily in the oil industry. He bought southern legislators and his plan was actually a clause in the Compromise of 1877 that ended Reconstruction. But he was never able to see it built. As he planned this though, Scott named KKK members to his board of directors. That’s the kind of guy he was.

What I knew Scott most for before writing this post was his actions in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. I wrote about this strike early in the labor history series, but the short version of it is that a few workers went on strike after the Panic of 1873 had made their lives increasingly miserable over the next four years. But the railroads were so despised by the general population–for jacking up prices, for the noise and the smoke, for not maintaining the lines through urban centers so if you tried to cross it with your cart you might get stuck and then the train would run you down, and for the labor conditions–that it turned into a general revolt against the industry. Scott’s solution: murder workers. His railroad was a disaster by this time, losing money consistently because John D. Rockefeller shifted moving his oil from the rail to pipelines. Scott was so outraged by workers striking that he provided one of the most notorious lines of the Gilded Age: “Give them a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread!” Nice guy. Scott helped convince Rutherford Hayes, not that he really needed that much convincing, to use American troops as strikebreakers. It was effective, dozens of workers were killed, and Scott saw that they got that rifle diet.

The one silver lining is that the strike helped ruin Scott’s already declining line. The next year, he had a stroke. I hope he was aware that his life was ruined and was very sad about it. He died in 1881, at the age of 57. His protege Andrew Carnegie would continue his tradition of corruption and killing workers.

Thomas Alexander Scott is buried in Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age scumbag capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Leland Stanford is on the campus of Stanford University and Henry Flagler is in St. Augustine, Florida. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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