|United States Senator|
March 4, 1867 - March 12, 1877
|J. Donald Cameron|
March 4, 1857 - March 4, 1861
March 13, 1845 - March 3, 1849
|United States Minister to Russia|
June 25, 1862 - September 18, 1862
|26th United States Secretary of War|
March 5, 1861 - January 14, 1862
|Born||March 8, 1799|
Maytown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Died||June 26, 1889 (aged 90)|
Maytown, Pennsylvania, U.S.
|Political party||Democratic (before 1849)|
Simon Cameron (March 8, 1799 – June 26, 1889) was an American businessman and politician. He represented Pennsylvania in the United States Senate and served as United States Secretary of War under President Abraham Lincoln at the start of the American Civil War.
A persistent opponent of slavery, Cameron briefly joined the Know Nothing Party before switching to the Republican Party in 1856. He won election to another term in the Senate in 1857 and provided pivotal support to Abraham Lincoln at the 1860 Republican National Convention.
Lincoln appointed Cameron as his first Secretary of War. Cameron's wartime tenure was marked by allegations of corruption and lax management, and he was demoted to Ambassador to Russia in January 1862. Cameron made a political comeback after the Civil War, winning a third election to the Senate in 1867 and building a powerful state party machine that would dominate Pennsylvania politics for the next seventy years.
Cameron was the third of five sons, and had three younger sisters. One story claimed that Cameron was orphaned at nine, and later apprenticed to a printer, Andrew Kennedy, editor of the Northumberland Gazette before entering the field of journalism. If Cameron were apprenticed to Kennedy at age nine (c. 1808) for a then-standard period of seven years, he would have become a journeyman printer at age 16 (c. 1815).
As a young man Cameron's prudent investments in publishing, banking, manufacturing and railroads provided both a financial bankroll and wide insights into key Pennsylvania industries.
Cameron was editor of the Bucks County Messenger in 1821. A year later, he moved to Washington, D.C., and studied political movements while working for the printing firm of Gales and Seaton. Cameron purchased and ran the Harrisburg Republican in 1824.
Cameron became the state printer of Pennsylvania from 1825 until 1827, and was state adjutant general in 1826. He constructed several rail lines and merged them into the Northern Central Railway, of which his son became Vice-President. Cameron founded the Bank of Middletown in 1832 and engaged in other business enterprises.
In 1838, he was appointed as commissioner to settle claims of the Winnebago Indians. This role would later haunt him politically, as he acquired the derisive nickname "Winnebago Chief" after allegedly cheating the tribe in a supply contract.
Cameron began his political career as a Democrat, supporting the campaigns of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. When Democrats factionalized in 1845, Cameron created a coalition of insurgent Democrats and mainline Whigs to win election to complete the term of James Buchanan.
He waged a bitter dispute with governor-elect Andrew Curtin, but nevertheless in 1860 made himself the state's "favorite son" at the Republican national convention. He was not a serious contender for the presidency, but his control of the large Pennsylvania delegation gave him tremendous influence over the ultimate result.
At the 1860 Republican National Convention, Cameron controlled the votes of the Pennsylvania delegation. He delivered those votes to Abraham Lincoln for the nomination for President, which proved decisive. In return, Lincoln's managers promised a Cabinet post for Cameron.
He broke with Lincoln and openly advocated emancipating the slaves and arming them for the army at a time Lincoln was not ready to publicly take that position. Cameron's tenure as Secretary of War was marked by allegations of corruption and lax management.
On April 18, 1861, the day after Virginia seceded from the Union, the Virginia militia seized Harpers Ferry, an important work station on the rival Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's main westward line and a strategically important connection between Washington, D.C., and the American West.
Under threats of destruction or confiscation from the Governor of Virginia and mayor of nearby Charles Town, B&O president John Work Garrett asked Cameron to protect the B&O. Instead, Cameron warned Garrett that passage of any Confederate troops over his line would be treason. Cameron agreed to station troops to protect other rail lines, including the Pennsylvania, but flatly refused to help the B&O. The B&O had to repair damaged line at its own expense and often received late or no payment for services rendered to the federal government. The Harpers Ferry Bridge was blown up by order of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson on June 14.
On June 20, 1861, Jackson seized Martinsburg, another major B&O work station. Within weeks, Jackson began confiscating locomotives, train cars, and track for Confederate use in Virginia.[a] With B&O's main line into Washington inoperable for over six months, the North Central and Pennsylvania Railroads profited from overflow traffic.
These problems were partially alleviated by the Summer 1861 Union victories at the Philippi and Rich Mountain, and vigorous army and company work crews which reduced the main line gap to 25 miles between Harpers Ferry and Back Creek. However, with no help from Secretary Cameron, Garret appealed to others, including Reverdy Johnson, General George McClellan, and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase.
The gap created in the B&O line dramatically affected civilian life as well. The B&O was forced to arrange to have its coal shipments brought to the capital via the Chesapeake and Ohio canal, but as winter began, coal prices soared in Washington. Western farmers could also not get their produce to markets because of the B&O gap. Finally, Samuel M. Felton, the President of PW&B Railroad notified newspapers of the War Department's discrimination against the B&O.
Cameron's corruption became so notorious that Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens, asked whether there was anything Cameron would not steal, said, "I don't think that he would steal a red hot stove." Cameron demanded Stevens retract this insult, and so Stevens said to Lincoln, "I believe I told you he would not steal a red hot stove. I will now take that back."
In January 1862, President Lincoln removed Cameron in favor of Edwin M. Stanton, a Pennsylvania lawyer who had been serving as Cameron's legal advisor. Furthermore, on January 31, Congress passed the Railways and Telegraph Act, creating the United States Military Railroad and allowing it to seize and operate any railroad or telegraph company's equipment, although Stanton and USMRR Superintendent Daniel McCallum would choose to allow civilian operations to continue. In February 1862, Union forces recaptured Martinsburg and Harpers Ferry, and work crews continued replacing wrecked bridges and equipment, although bushwhacker raids continued.
Cameron made a political comeback after the Civil War, building a powerful state party machine that would dominate Pennsylvania politics for the next seventy years. In 1866, Cameron was again elected to the Senate.
Cameron convinced his close friend Ulysses S. Grant to appoint his son, J. Donald Cameron, as Secretary of War in 1876. Later that year, Cameron helped Rutherford B. Hayes win the Republican nomination for President. Cameron resigned from the Senate in 1877, after ensuring that his son would succeed him.
According to historian Hans L. Trefousse, Cameron ranks as one of the most successful political bosses in American history. Cameron was shrewd, wealthy, and devoted his talents in money to the goal of building a powerful Republican organization. He achieved recognition as the undisputed arbiter of Pennsylvania politics. His assets included business acumen, sincere devotion to the interests and needs of Pennsylvania, expertise on the tariff issue and the need for protection for Pennsylvania industry, and a skill at managing and organizing politicians and their organizations. He cleverly rewarded his friends, punished his enemies, and maintain good relations with his Democratic counterparts. His reputation as an unscrupulous grafter was exaggerated by his enemies; he was in politics for power, not profit.
Biographer Paul Kahan says Cameron was very good as a "back-slapping, glad-handing politician," who could manipulate congressmen. But he was too disorganized, and inattentive to the extremely complex duties of the largest and most important federal department. He paid too much attention to patronage and then not enough to strategy.