In 1913 Scott graduated from public high school in Hawfields and entered North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts at Raleigh (now part of North Carolina State University), where he received the Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture in 1917.
Shortly after studies Scott volunteered for service in World War I as a private in the field artillery. Upon his discharge in 1918, he purchased a farm in Hawfields. He also acquired and operated the dairy farm that had been in his family since the mid-eighteenth century.
Scott's services to agriculture included a year as an emergency food production agent of the Department of Agriculture. Alamance County employed him as farm agent from 1920 to 1930, and the North Carolina State Grange hired him as master from 1930 to 1933. In 1934 he became a regional director of the farm debt adjustment program of the Resettlement Administration.
In 1936 Scott was chosen state commissioner of agriculture; he was reelected to the post in 1940 and 1944. As commissioner he fought for soil conservation and improvement, reforestation, better roads, better health-care facilities, better schools and expansion of educational opportunities, eradication of animal diseases, rural electrification, and rural telephone lines. He was also chairman of the Tobacco Advisory Board, a member of the National Advisory Committee of Agricultural Research and Marketing, a member of the Special United States Commission to Mexico for Study of Hoof and Mouth Disease (1947), and president of the National Association of Commissioners, Secretaries, and Directors of Agriculture.
In February 1948, Scott resigned his post as state commissioner of agriculture to seek the Democratic nomination for governor. He was nominated, and was elected in November 1948, serving from January 1949 to January 1953. He quickly initiated a politically liberal program designed especially to benefit those who had been shortchanged in the past. Highways were built and improved - half of them rural roads known colloquially as "Scott roads"; massive school construction programs were accomplished; health-care institutions were modernized and increased; ocean port facilities were completed; and rural electric and telephone services were expanded. (Scott also unsuccessfully attempted to have the closed-shop law repealed. )
Scott's national reputation as a southern liberal was enhanced by his rejection of the Dixiecrats and his support of President Harry S. Truman in 1948. In March 1949 he appointed a liberal Democrat, Frank P. Graham, president of the University of North Carolina, to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. In 1952 he supported Adlai Stevenson for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In 1954 Scott was elected to the United States Senate, running on a platform to reduce unemployment, to increase farm prices, and to destroy that "un-American thing that has come to be known the world over as 'McCarthyism. ' "
He died in Burlington, North Carolina.
Scott had a Jeffersonian reverence for the land and was a believer in "moral agrarianism, " the view that agriculture is more than a vocation, and that its preservation and prosperity are of fundamental importance to the stability of American society and the maintenance of democracy. He became known as "the Squire of Haw River, " and his most dependable political supporters were rural North Carolinians whom he called "the branch-head boys. "
In the explosive area of race relations, Scott was a "liberal with the brakes on. " He was a mild segregationist.
In the Senate he was a liberal on domestic issues and a cold warrior in the international arena.
He proposed a world food bank; he advocated equal rights for women; he introduced a resolution calling for a research program to ascertain whether smoking is a factor in lung cancer; he questioned the return by the Interior Department of public lands in Oregon to private timber and mining interests (the Al Serena case). He also called for another Franklin D. Roosevelt to "provide us with a leader who is bold, who is decisive, and who has imagination, " to solve the problems of the space age and restore American prestige in the world.
Scott was outspoken.
Quotes from others about the person
"He had the understanding of all men, " said Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas regarding Scott's gubernatorial record, "whether they worked on the land in their overalls, in the factories, or in their blue serges in the counting houses. "
On July 2, 1919, Scott married his boyhood sweetheart, Mary Elizabeth White; they had three children.