In 1854, the Pennsylvania Republican Party was founded by David Wilmot, the representative who sponsored the Wilmot Proviso, which if enacted would have blocked slavery from any lands gained in the Mexican-American War. However, he does not turn out to be the foremost figure of the early Republican Party in Pennsylvania, only serving two years in the Senate, nor the man who grows it most. This would be Simon Cameron (1799-1889), a figure who as you will read was a legend of political machinery.
Before I write more about Cameron, there is a story about him that highlights his reputation. When President Lincoln asked Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (R-Penn.) about Cameron’s honesty when considering him for Secretary of War, Stevens responded, “I don’t think he would steal a red hot stove”. When Lincoln related Stevens’ answer to Cameron, who demanded an apology. Stevens would respond, “I apologize. I said Cameron would not steal a red hot stove. I withdraw that statement” (Robinson, 57). To compound matters, Paul Kahan’s biography of Cameron, which tries to put him more in the context of his times, was titled, Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War.
Cameron got his start in Pennsylvania politics in the 1820s in newspaper publishing. By 1824, he was running the Pennsylvania state newspaper for the Democratic-Republican Party of the time and had by that point gotten many valuable contacts in state politics. Cameron was slow to back Andrew Jackson’s candidacy but did so because he supported John C. Calhoun for vice president. When one thinks of what Cameron would become, this support is deeply ironic. Ultimately John Quincy Adams won with Calhoun as vice president, and Cameron would be one of the friendlier Jackson allies to Adams’ policies, such as higher tariffs and the funding of internal improvements. He would become, however, more supportive of Jackson in 1828 and would become a strong supporter of Congressman James Buchanan. Cameron would exercise a great deal of influence in Pennsylvania politics and President Jackson would come to rely on him for getting Pennsylvania’s vote. However, he did say of him that he was a “renegade politician” and regarded him as dishonest.
Aiding the Rise of James Buchanan
Cameron also played a significant role in getting Pennsylvania’s Democrats on board with nominating Martin Van Buren as vice president for Jackson’s reelection run. As a reward, Jackson appointed Cameron to Board of Visitors to the United States Military Academy. He would also engineer James Buchanan’s election to the Senate. Although failing the first time to get him elected, Cameron would persuade Jackson to appoint Pennsylvania’s senior senator, William Wilkins, to a diplomatic post. He then managed to secure his election to the Senate.
The Winnebago Affair: The Start of a Reputation
Cameron’s ill reputation began with his role as a commissioner for the Winnebago Indians, in which his responsibility was to settle land claims. In this role, he sought to enrich himself on land speculation and was also alleged to have defrauded them by colluding with attorneys to convince Indians to grant them power of attorney so they could get the settlement money from their claims (Robinson, 58). The derth of documentary evidence makes the whole affair both suspect and questionable as to who was telling the truth. Although Cameron was exonerated of wrongdoing in the Congressional investigation, he would for a time be known derisively as “The Great Winnebago Chief” for his alleged involvement in fraud. However, this was only a temporary setback for his long career.
First Term in the Senate
As a Democrat, Simon Cameron was a bit of a maverick as he supported a number of key planks of the Whig Party, and as a result he was able to lead a coalition of high tariff Democrats and Whigs to secure his election to the Senate, much to the consternation of Democratic Party regulars. Indeed, Cameron proved something of a pain for Polk and after he declined to consult him on federal appointments, he succeeded in forming coalitions to defeat Henry Horn as Collector of Customs for the Port of Philadelphia as well as George W. Woodward’s nomination for the Supreme Court. Polk ended up nominating Pennsylvanian Robert C. Grier, who was confirmed. President Polk said of him that he was “a managing tricky man in whom no reliance is to be placed” (Robinson, 57) On slavery, Cameron was a proponent of popular sovereignty, meaning the people of the states should get to decide on whether to be “free” or “slave” and he would grow more anti-slavery over time.
His time in the Senate was cut short when in 1848 Zachary Taylor was elected president as a Whig and with this victory the Pennsylvania state legislature went to the Whigs. Cameron had supported James Buchanan for the Democratic nomination for president, but when he lost to Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan, Cameron was accused of working behind the scenes to undermine Buchanan (Kahan, 87-89). He was unable to get enough support for another term due to the Whig composition of the legislature and was also unable to get Democratic legislators behind him…indeed none of them cast their votes for him. Although he was out of office now, this would be temporary as through his business interests he maintained political contacts. Cameron and Buchanan were no longer allies and he managed to undermine him still in a number of ways. Cameron, for instance, sent Jefferson Davis an article that reported that Buchanan had signed an anti-slavery petition thirty years before so as to undermine Southern support for him for the 1852 election. Buchanan had his allies in the press retaliate against Cameron by writing scathing articles. The political battling between them continued into the 1851 gubernatorial election, which although produced the victory of Democrat William Bigler, infighting may have thrown the state Senate to the Whigs. Although as part of the Pennsylvania delegation to the Democratic National Convention he was pledged to support Buchanan, Cameron worked behind the scenes to push for Lewis Cass. Ultimately, this battling between Buchanan and Cass resulted in the elevation of New Hampshire Senator Franklin Pierce, who would win the election.
The 1855 and 1857 Elections
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was signed into law in 1854, Cameron left the Democratic Party and the following year he sought to return to the Senate, and in the process “loaned” money to Democratic powerbrokers, but his persuasive efforts failed. He then became affiliated with the American Party and hinted support for restrictive policies on immigration to win their favor. As the American Party fell apart, he became affiliated with the Republican Party and in 1856 he was briefly a contender for being picked as vice president by John C. Fremont. However, he opted to pick former Whig Senator William Dayton of New Jersey, and the ticket went down to defeat and the state of Pennsylvania voted for Buchanan. Cameron again ran for the Senate in 1857, this time successfully as a Republican. This election was challenged in the Senate, with claims of the state Senate failing to meet legal requirements surrounding the election and that “corrupt and unlawful means” had been used to secure votes (U.S. Senate). However, a Senate investigation only found a procedural misstep that was minor, and Cameron got to keep his seat.
Secretary of War
As a senator for the young Republican Party, Cameron was, just as he had been as a Democrat, a powerbroker and became a leading figure in the new party. Although he initially ran for the Republican nomination for president, it became clear during the Republican National Convention that he wouldn’t be nominated. The leading contender for the nomination was Senator William Seward of New York. However, Abraham Lincoln’s campaign made an arrangement with Cameron for him to transfer his delegates to Lincoln in exchange for a position in the new administration. This helped Lincoln secure enough delegates to pull off an upset and defeat Seward.
After Lincoln’s election, Cameron met with him and Lincoln wrote him a letter offering him either the Treasury or the War Department as a cabinet office. However, not every Republican in Pennsylvania wanted Cameron to have a post in the Lincoln cabinet. Horace White, a publisher of the Chicago Press & Tribune, wrote to Senator Lyman Trumbull (R-Ill.) that, ‘If I am incorrect in supposing that Mr. C. defrauded the Winebago half-breeds of $66,000 about the year 1832, I am not mistaken in believing that his general reputation is shockingly bad….For my part I wish that Albany and Harrisburgh were in the bottom of the sea” (Mr. Lincoln and Friends). After Cameron’s rivals complained, he rescinded the offer. However, Cameron had a trick up his sleeve, and he showed the Lincoln letter to some friends of his. Lincoln ultimately granted him the post of Secretary of War.
As Secretary of War, Cameron proved how adept he was…at politicking. He proved himself quite competent at political organization but incompetent at properly procuring and distributing resources. Cameron’s agents had disregarded competitive bidding completely and bought only from suppliers that were favored. Inefficiency and fraud contributed to the purchase of “huge quantities of rotten blankets, tainted pork, knapsacks that became unglued in the rain, uniforms that fell apart, discarded Austrian muskets, and hundreds of diseased and dying horses – all at exorbitant prices” (Oates). Some of the problems existing can be attributed to the United States facing the unprecedented problem of secession and a war that could literally be brother vs. brother, and 1861 was far from an easy start for the Union side. However, there were some things that were egregious, such as “selling condemned Hall carbines for a nominal sum, bought them back at $15 apiece, sold them at $3.50 apiece, and bought them back again at $22 apiece” (Oates). Although Cameron had not enriched himself with contract graft, numerous underlings had. He also engaged in a morally iffy arrangement with the Northern Central Railroad to transport troops and supplies, a company in which Cameron had invested in and gained 40% in profits from this move. However, using the Northern Central Railroad also shaved costs by a third (Robinson, 60). Cameron also attracted trouble by getting ahead of Lincoln on race, as he released a report from the War Department that called for granting freedom to any slave who crosses into Union lines and enlisting black soldiers. The latter in particular was a stance that President Lincoln was publicly opposed to at the time, and Cameron resigned in January 1862. He recounted on his influence in Lincoln’s selection of his successor, “When I went out of the Cabinet Lincoln asked me whom I wanted for my successor. I told him I wanted Stanton. Welles said he would go and ask Stanton whether he will take it. I started to go down and on the way I met Chase, and told him I was just going down to see Stanton – and told him what I was going for. No said he don’t go to Stanton’s office. Come with me to my office and send for Stanton to come there and we will talk it over together, and I did so” (Mr. Lincoln and Friends). Interestingly enough, Lincoln didn’t know that Edwin Stanton had assisted writing the anti-slavery part of the report. However, Stanton would be a competent administrator as Secretary of War.
On April 30, 1862, Congress censured Cameron for his poor administration of the War Department. Lincoln took an approach in response that was one that seems uncommon today: he responded that he and all other department chiefs were “equally responsible with him for whatever error, wrong, or fault was committed in the premises” (Oates). He took this stance as he regarded the nation as having been in danger and thus everyone had a difficult job in marshalling the resources needed for the war. Despite performance issues, reviewer Michael Robinson (2022) notes that, “one must admit that by the start of 1862 the War Department and “the army were better organized and provisioned than a year before (157)” (61) Cameron had been confirmed as Minister to Russia, and in 1863 resigned the post and attempted again to run for the Senate but lost narrowly to Democrat Charles Buckalew. Cameron was important in campaigning for Lincoln in 1864 and the state’s voters narrowly voted to reelect him. Cameron was also building up his political machine in the state, and did so despite having to contend with rivals, such as Governor Andrew Curtin (who would later serve in Congress as a Democrat in the 1880s) and Rep. William D. Kelley, who dismissed a pitch by a Cameron ally to get the censure reversed by saying, “To stir foul matter would be to produce a stench” (Mr. Lincoln and Friends).
In 1867, he succeeded in returning to the Senate, being elected over Governor Curtin. There, he aligned himself with the Radical Republicans on Reconstruction and voted to convict President Andrew Johnson. He proceeded to build up the Republican machine in Pennsylvania during this time into a robust political organization. In 1874, Cameron was one of the numerous Republican senators to bend to pressure to support the proposed Inflation Act, inflating the currency in the wake of the Panic of 1873 as a stimulus. Currency inflation was a policy supported by many Philadelphia businessmen to stimulate the economy and ultimately, President Grant vetoed the bill on the advice of Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton Fish. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, who opposed inflating the currency and regarded it as a betrayal of a Republican Party campaign promise, included Cameron among the Republican senators he made fun of on supporting inflation, which he and other economic conservatives regarded as “financial heresy”. The below cartoon he drew in response to heated criticism he received after ripping on them through his cartoons.
Depicted are Senators John A. Logan (R-Ill.), Oliver Morton (R-Ind.), Cameron, and Matthew Carpenter (R-Wis.), with Nast asking “pardon”.
By 1876, Cameron was 77 years old and wanted to officially pass the torch. After ensuring that his son, Secretary of War J. Donald Cameron, would succeed him, he officially retired. Ironically, Cameron’s son would prove to be a bit of the inverse of his father: he had been a highly competent Secretary of War but was not as skilled at the glad-handing, back-slapping politics of his father. Although the elder Cameron was officially retired, he still acted behind the scenes. For instance, he used his influence to attempt to get former President Grant nominated again in 1880. Simon Cameron died on June 26, 1889 at the age of 90, leaving behind a tremendous political machine. The younger Cameron would eventually be eclipsed by Matthew Quay, whose efforts were vital to Benjamin Harrison’s victory in 1888 and inadvertently got Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency. The machine Cameron built would not face a serious challenge until the Great Depression, in which Philadelphia became more inclined to elect Democrats to Congress. However, Republicans would control the city’s political machinery until the election of Democrat Joseph S. Clark as mayor in 1951.
Kahan, P. (2016). Amiable scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s scandalous Secretary of War. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Oates, S.B. (2021, February/March). Lincoln’s Corrupt War Department. American Heritage, 66(2).
Simon Cameron. Tulane University.
The Cabinet: Simon Cameron (1799-1889). Mr. Lincoln and Friends.
The Election Case of Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania (1857). U.S. Senate.
Robinson, M.D. (2022). “Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Scandalous Secretary of War”, by Paul Kahan”, The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, 43(1).
2 thoughts on “Simon Cameron: The Controversial Builder of the Pennsylvania GOP”
Fascinating How Many Scoundrels Honest Abe Was Associated With! Corruption Did Not Wait For The Gilded Age. An Excellent Read. Thanks From DAVE IN TEXAS.
Thanks! Lincoln had a bit of a soft spot for rogues, although corruption was not unusual. This is the positive case for Cameron, that he was no worse than other political bosses of the time.