The John Scott collection of letters

After finishing the Rosengarten collection, my next project was a small assemblage of letters from the papers of John Scott, the finding aid for which can be found here.

Mr. Scott was a Pennsylvania native son with a storied family.  His father, John Scott Sr., was born near Gettysburg in 1784 and made his living as a tanner and shoemaker.  He served his country both on the field in the War of 1812 and in the halls of power as both a Pennsylvania and United States Representative.  His brother, George Washington Scott, moved to Florida where he became a successful plantation owner and businessman, and served the Confederacy as lieutenant colonel of the Fifth Florida Cavalry Battalion during the Civil War.  After the war, Scott established a successful business in phosphates and manufacturing, and became the primary benefactor of the Decatur Female Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, which then took the name of his mother Agnes in honor of his gift and thrives today as the Agnes Scott College.  John Scott Jr. remained in the Union during the war, practicing law in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania and followed his father into politics.  In 1862, he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he remained until 1868, when he was appointed to represent Pennsylvania in the United States Senate.  As a Republican, he was embroiled in the politics surrounding Reconstruction, including a Congressional investigations into the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan and the overall progress of southern reintegration and African American enfranchisement.  He was not up for re-election in 1875, and worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad as legal counsel until the final year of his life.  If you’d like to visit him today, you can find his grave in our own Woodlands Cemetery next to campus.

If you have ever written a letter to your senators or representatives, and you think back to the subject matter of that letter, imagine that repeated about 185 times, and intermixed with thank-you notes, petitions for favors, and other verbal hobnobbing.  That is the reality of the Scott collection.  It is interesting not for any specific subject concentration, but rather for its complete lack of one.  With a few exceptions and outliers, all the letters are from January 1874 and reflect topics and concerns as varied and sundry as the writers.  One is from a D.B. Brenner, employed at the United States Department of the Treasury (a quick Google search reveals him to have been a clerk working in the office of the Comptroller of the Currency), refusing to play the game of party affiliation in order to obtain employment for himself or his friends, which I thought was a nice peek into the world of party politics and its intersection with civil service at the close of the Reconstruction Era.  Related to that was a letter from a Mr. C. James Clarke endorsing Mr. D.A. Beckley, postmaster at Bloomsburg.  Mr. Beckley’s qualifications?  A man of good character, proven success at his job, and the right party affiliation!  A brief application of Google-fu revealed some fun background on Mr. Beckley, beyond his party affiliation and role as postmaster (from which role he was removed and reinstated a couple times in back-and-forth party squabbles between Republicans and Democrats) – he was also superintendent of Bloomsburg public schools, and a member of the Knights Templar!  Not the medieval order, mind you (unfortunately!), but one of the modern societies named after it.  A letter from a year after Clarke’s from a Mr. Samuel Knoor continues this saga, asking for Scott’s aid against the inevitable politically-motivated protest against Beckley’s appointment.  One is from a woman charged with “Insanity” asking for Scott’s attestation that she is, in fact, sane, and another, presumably from a kindred spirit of Francis Campbell Macaulay’s, asks for Scott’s autograph. The letters range from subjects such as  these, to requests for pensions, asking Scott to find civil service jobs for the writer’s friend or family member, or a notification that a requested package of vegetable seeds has, in fact, been forwarded. The writers all tend to be colleagues, correspondents, or constituents of Scott and their letters comprise a representative, concentrated sample of the senator’s daily correspondence for one month of his life.  As such, after consulting with Holly I reorganized the collection from its original alphabetical order into chronological order.  Researchers can now thumb through the letters in the approximate order Scott received them and thus reconstruct a “month in the life” of Scott’s senatorial career.

The topics of the letters, which, at times can read like a litany that seems hilarious in hindsight, but at the time was serious stress-causing business, provided me with a fun and informative window into the party politics and political business of the period, and a definite appreciation for the stress a U.S. senator is placed under.  Having squared this collection away, I am now on towards the Stewart Culin collection of advertisements.

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