Cameron, Simon

Born: 1799-03-08 Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

Died: 1889-06-26 Dauphin County, Pennsylvania

Born into a poor Pennsylvania family, Simon Cameron received little formal education. His professional life began as an apprentice to various printers in Harrisburg and Lancaster County. He later became editor of a newspaper. At the age of twenty-three he moved to Washington, DC, to work for the firm of Gales and Seaton, which printed the Annals of Congress. In 1822, he returned to Harrisburg to take part-ownership of the Pennsylvania Intelligencer.

Cameron began his long political career in 1824 when he served as a delegate to the Pennsylvania State Democratic Convention. Cameron combined his growing involvement in Democratic state politics with business ventures in banking, railroads, and canals. He secured a contract with the Pennsylvania state government to build canals in the state in 1826, but lost the contract due to his Democratic partisanship. In 1830, he received a patronage position as superintendent of the Mississippi River-Lake Pontchartrain canal in Louisiana. In 1838, he served as federal commissioner to adjudicate the claims of the Winnebago Indians. Cameron's handling of this episode prompted the first of many charges of political corruption.

In 1845, Cameron won a seat in the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy left when James Buchanan resigned. He was not re-elected in 1849, and he spent the next eight years building a political machine in Pennsylvania. Cameron left the Democratic party in 1855 and joined the American Party, failing to win election to the U.S. Senate that year. In 1856, Cameron joined the Republican Party, and presidential candidate John C. Fremont briefly considered him for nomination as vice-president. In 1857, Cameron returned to the U.S. Senate, as a Republican, amid charges of bribery and corruption. A candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, Cameron eventually gave his support to Abraham Lincoln in exchange for a cabinet position, and worked tirelessly during the presidential campaign to secure the crucial state of Pennsylvania for the Republican ticket.

Lincoln appointed Cameron secretary of war. Overwhelmed by the Civil War and the scope of his duties, Cameron proved a poor manager, and charges of corruption again surfaced. When Cameron proposed arming slaves in December 1861, Lincoln decided to replace him with Edwin M. Stanton, and did so in January 1862. Lincoln immediately appointed him as minister to Russia, where he remained until February 1863.

Jean Baker, "Cameron, Simon," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 4:259-60; Erwin S. Bradley, Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Secretary of War: A Political Biography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966); Lee F. Crippen, Simon Cameron, Ante-Bellum Years (Oxford, Ohio: Mississippi Valley Press, 1942).