Simon Cameron

The American politician Simon Cameron (1799-1889) is best known for the efficient political machine he developed in Pennsylvania and for the way he used it to gain public office and financial rewards for himself and his friends.

Simon Cameron was born in Lancaster, Pa., on March 8, 1799. His family was poor and he had little formal education, so he apprenticed himself to a printing establishment in Harrisburg. Hardworking and ambitious, by the age of 21 he was editor of a local newspaper. Two years later he found employment with Gales and Saton, publishers of the congressional debates, in Washington, D.C. While there, Cameron spent his spare time in the houses of Congress, making friends and learning the ways of politics. In 1824 he was back in Harrisburg, where he became owner and editor of a local newspaper and launched a lifelong career of mixing business with politics.

Editor and Entrepreneur

Cameron took strong editorial positions on public issues, especially the protective tariff, and exercised considerable influence on state and even national politics. He was rewarded for his efforts with the lucrative position of state printer and, soon after, by appointment as adjutant general on the governor's staff.

Cameron saw enormous opportunity for wealth and political power in the internal improvement boom then sweeping the states. Without experience he became a contractor and made a fortune constructing a network of canals and railroads, which he ultimately brought together to form the Northern Central Railroad. To help finance this, he established his own bank.

Early Political Career

Cameron's interests in politics went hand in glove with his economic pursuits. He supported Democratic candidates in the Jackson-Van Buren period and evidently pulled strings that sent James Buchanan to the U.S. Senate. For yeoman service in support of Martin Van Buren, Cameron was appointed commissioner to settle Winnebago Indian claims in 1833. Though the scandal that followed led to his dismissal and temporarily damaged his political reputation, it did not change either his methods or his ambitions.

With the rise of the Native American party, better known as the Know-Nothing party, in Pennsylvania, Cameron shifted allegiance. In 1845, a coalition of Whigs, Americans, and protectionist Democrats elected him to the U.S. Senate. His career was undistinguished, and he was not reelected in 1849 or 1858. With the rise of the new Republican party he was able to weld a powerful Republican machine which sent him back to the Senate. Although his political shifts and intrigues brought opposition even from some Pennsylvania Republicans, Cameron's success and self-confidence allowed him to set himself up as a possible Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860. A Cameron-Lincoln club (with Abraham Lincoln as vice president) was formed but made little progress. Few who came to the Republican convention in Chicago thought of Cameron as a possible nominee, but all knew that the Pennsylvania vote was necessary for the success of any candidate. This gave Cameron enormous bargaining power.

Election of 1860

When the first ballot was taken, the votes for Cameron were almost wholly from the Pennsylvania delegates, and he was far behind William H. Seward and Lincoln. As the contest between those two developed into a struggle for the uncommitted states of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, Lincoln's campaign managers (against his firm instructions) began to bargain and make promises. To secure Indiana, they promised a place in Lincoln's Cabinet to Congressman Caleb B. Smith, and they promised the Pennsylvania delegation a place for Cameron at the President's "council table."

Lincoln was unhappy with these commitments but after his election found it necessary to keep them in mind. Pennsylvania and Cameron presented the most difficult problem. An important state could not be ignored; and Cameron was determined to see that the promise was kept, despite sharp opposition to him.

Lincoln attempted to avoid Cameron, but when Cameron appeared in Springfield, Ill., with the Pennsylvania men who had made the bargain, Lincoln yielded and gave him a letter saying that "by your permission I shall at the proper time nominate you to the United States Senate for confirmation as Secretary of the Treasury or as Secretary of War." Protests from all quarters convinced Lincoln of his mistake, and he wrote Cameron to recall this letter, saying it was impossible to take him into the Cabinet. His suggestion that Cameron write declining the appointment was never answered. Renewed pressure from the Pennsylvania Legislature consequently forced Lincoln to nominate Cameron for secretary of war; he could do less damage there than in the Treasury.

Lincoln's Secretary of War

As civil war became a reality, the War Department assumed new importance. The duty of organizing and equipping thousands of soldiers required the expenditure of millions of dollars and involved the exercise of enormous power. Cameron, as before, viewed his position primarily as a chance to reward friends, increase his own fortune, and create a powerful political machine. He rewarded more than 20 Pennsylvania politicians with jobs in the department. Then came contract scandals, the wasting of money on unneeded or inferior supplies, and even the awarding of commissions in the Army. Soon Congress was incensed, and the press began demanding Cameron's removal.

Cameron had at first followed Secretary of State Seward's lead on issues, but as his own situation grew desperate he turned toward Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase's position and became critical of Lincoln and devoted to fighting slavery. Although Lincoln made it clear that he opposed freeing slaves who escaped into the Union lines or who lived in conquered territory, Cameron openly defended generals who had done so. In his report to Congress in December 1861, Cameron included a passage recommending the creation of a slave army. Lincoln was not consulted, and the report was sent to the postmasters in the chief cities to be delivered to the press. This move behind the President's back was made to cloak departmental corruption and to give Cameron standing as a liberal. Although Cameron's report was recalled by telegraph as soon as Lincoln discovered the treachery, a few newspapers had already published it. The antislavery element responded and Chase approved, but it was apparent that Cameron could not remain in the Cabinet. On Jan. 11, 1862, Cameron received a letter: "My dear Sir: As you have more than once expressed a desire for a change in position, I can now gratify you consistently with my view of the public interest. I therefore propose nominating you to the Senate next Monday as minister to Russia. Very sincerely your friend, A. Lincoln."

Cameron's stay in Russia was short and uneventful. He soon returned to Pennsylvania and to the old political game. He ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1863 but regained his seat in 1867. He made certain that his son would succeed him as senator when he resigned in 1877. He then retired to his farm at Donegal Springs, Pa., where he died on June 26, 1889.

Further Reading on Simon Cameron

Erwin S. Bradley, Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Secretary of War: A Political Biography (1966), presents a sympathetic view of Cameron's political career. Lee F. Crippen, Simon Cameron: Ante-Bellum Years (1942), considers his career in relation to the times. Burton J. Hendrick, Lincoln's War Cabinet (1946), discusses Cameron's tenure as secretary of war.