Simon Cameron

Simon Cameron was a Pennsylvania senator who later served as President Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of war.


Born in Pennsylvania on March 8, 1799, Simon Cameron was considered by many to be on of America's first political bosses. He began his career in government under President James Buchanan by handling a land claim situation. His political ambitions led him to be elected to the Senate in 1845 and appointed as President Lincoln's secretary of war in 1861. Cameron's sphere of political influence, in Pennsylvania in particular, was immense. He greatly influenced elections during his time, including the appointment of his own son as his senatorial replacement.

Early Years

Simon Cameron was born on March 8, 1799, in Maytown, Pennsylvania. The son of an impoverished tailor, Cameron was orphaned at age 9. Despite having limited schooling, he became an avid reader and writer. This desire for education was fostered when Cameron became a printing apprentice. He immersed himself in all facets of the publishing, from printing mechanics to journalism.

By 1821, Cameron had landed a position as editor of the Bucks County Messenger, a Pennsylvania newspaper. By the following year, he had relocated to the nation's capital, where the Messenger was heavily involved in covering Congress. This may have sparked Cameron's own political interests, as he joined the Whig Party soon after his move to Washington, D.C. 

Political Career Beginnings

After marrying Margaret Brua, Cameron moved back to the Harrisburg area in 1824. There, he ran a Republican local paper. From 1825 to 1827, he served as Pennsylvania's state printer. (Cameron also was the state adjutant general in 1826.)

In addition to politics, Cameron—often referred to as "General Simon Cameron"—successfully dabbled in the railroad and banking businesses. He helped orchestrate Martin Van Buren's presidential nomination and James Buchanan's senatorial election. His backing of Van Buren led to a career-making opportunity. When the commander-in-chief asked Cameron to help settle the claims of the Winnebago Indians in the Wisconsin Territory, a politician was born.

Despite accusations of leading a financial scandal that cheated the Winnebago Indians out of land claims—which were never proven—Cameron soon climbed the political ladder. After James Buchanan relinquished his U.S. Senate seat to accept his appointment as U.S. secretary of state by President James Polk, Cameron, then a Democrat, was elected as his successor. Cameron served in the Senate from 1845 to 1849, when he was defeated. He then switched party affiliations, becoming a member of the People's Party (which later became the Republican Party), and gained re-election to the Senate in 1856.

Just a few years later, Cameron unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency, losing to Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln Years

Despite the defeat, Cameron remained loyal to the Republican Party, standing behind Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. His support paid off when Lincoln appointed him secretary of war on March 5, 1861, just one day after Cameron resigned from the Senate. However, within a year, the newly appointed member of Lincoln's Cabinet came to an impasse with the rest of the president's administration; he disagreed with a passage in his annual report permitting freed slaves to be armed and utilized as troops against the Confederacy in the American Civil War. Cameron refused to soften his stance and ultimately resigned from his Cabinet post on January 14, 1862. He was replaced by his legal advisor, Edwin Stanton, who had written the controversial passage.

Despite this incident and accusations of corruption, including those related to awarding biased military contracts, Lincoln continued to endorse his one-time Cabinet member; soon after Cameron left the president's Cabinet, Lincoln appointed him minister of Russia. Despite successfully garnering Russia's support for the Union during the war, Cameron abruptly relinquished his role as minister after less than one year, and returned to Pennsylvania.

Although no longer a government official, Cameron's continued endorsement of Lincoln kept him in an unofficial position of power, especially in Pennsylvania. the president regularly consulted his confidante regarding federal appointments in Pennsylvania, and Cameron's governmental reach continued to grow.

Life After Politics

In 1867, Cameron threw his hat back into the political ring, returning to the Senate, where he would remain until 1877. He only agreed to step down so that his son, James Donald Cameron, could take over his Senate seat. He spent his remaining years traveling before retiring to his Pennsylvania farm.

Cameron died after suffering a stroke on June 26, 1889, at age 90. He was buried at Harrisburg Cemetery, in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. He was also memorialized with the naming of Cameron Parish, Louisiana, and Cameron County, Pennsylvania.

Cameron is remembered for several famous quotes, including, "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought."

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