Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War

Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War

by Paul Kahan
Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War

Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War

by Paul Kahan


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From abject poverty to undisputed political boss of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s secretary of war, senator, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a founder of the Republican Party, Simon Cameron (1799–1889) was one of the nineteenth century’s most prominent political figures. In his wake, however, he left a series of questionable political and business dealings and, at the age of eighty, even a sex scandal.

Far more than a biography of Cameron, Amiable Scoundrel is also a portrait of an era that allowed—indeed, encouraged—a man such as Cameron to seize political control. The political changes of the early nineteenth century enabled him not only to improve his status but also to exert real political authority. The changes caused by the Civil War, in turn, allowed Cameron to consolidate his political authority into a successful, well-oiled political machine. A key figure in designing and implementing the Union’s military strategy during the Civil War’s crucial first year, Cameron played an essential role in pushing Abraham Lincoln to permit the enlistment of African Americans into the U.S. Army, a stance that eventually led to his forced resignation. Yet his legacy has languished, nearly forgotten save for the fact that his name has become shorthand for corruption, even though no evidence has ever been presented to prove that Cameron was corrupt.

Amiable Scoundrel puts Cameron’s actions into a larger historical context by demonstrating that many politicians of the time, including Abraham Lincoln, used similar tactics to win elections and advance their careers. This study is the fascinating story of Cameron’s life and an illuminating portrait of his times.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612348148
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Paul Kahan is a lecturer at Ohlone College in Fremont, California. He is the author of The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance and The Homestead Strike: Labor, Violence, and American Industry

Read an Excerpt

Amiable Scoundrel

Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War

By Paul Kahan


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61234-847-6


"A Determined Will and a Right Purpose"

On his father's side, Simon Cameron was descended from the Lochiel family of the Clan Cameron. Two brothers — Duncan and Donald (the "foolish ones," according to family tradition) — fled Scotland after participating in the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1746. Donald Cameron, along with his two sons, John and Simon, and their wives, settled in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Simon served as a private in the American army during the War of Independence, and his son Charles (born 1765), who had also migrated with the family, was apprenticed to a tailor in nearby Maytown. In 1794 Charles married Martha Pfoutz, who was descended from one of the earliest settlers of Lancaster County. One of eight children, her father had risen to local notoriety due to his service in the War of Independence. Shortly after they were married, Charles purchased a hotel. Future senator and secretary of war Simon Cameron was born in the hotel on March 8, 1799.

Cameron recalled being a "sickly little chap" who was "small for his age" and that his family was "not particularly overburdened with money." Another person who knew Cameron as a child recounted that when he was eight or nine, the future war secretary needed a book for school that cost a dollar. Cameron scrimped for three months, managing to save only seventy-three cents. Lamenting this to the storekeeper one day, the boy broke into tears. Touched by the boy's obvious desire to learn, the storekeeper lent Cameron the twenty-seven cents, which he later paid back with interest. When he ran for president in 1860, Cameron's campaign biography described him as a child "possessing a mind that was craving for knowledge, and, to satisfy that appetite, he spent every leisure moment in reading."

Charles Cameron's hotel failed in 1797, and his growing family was forced to move to a small frame house, where Charles tried to make a living as a tailor. This venture also failed and, in 1808 the family's furniture was seized and sold at auction by the local constable. That same year, the Camerons moved to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, but bad luck followed them; in 1810 Charles died, leaving Martha a widow and unable to support her large family. As a result, the older children were adopted by some of the more prosperous local families in Sunbury. Simon, who had just turned eleven, had the good fortune to be taken in by Dr. Peter Grahl, a prominent local physician, and his wife. The Grahls were childless, and they treated Simon like a son. For the first time in his life, Simon Cameron had access to a multitude of books, which he read voraciously. Shortly after his seventeenth birthday, Cameron apprenticed himself to printer Andrew Kennedy, who was at that time the publisher of the Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, and Republican Advertiser. Reflecting on this decision decades later, Cameron noted, "Owing to my ill-health and physical delicacy of constitution, I was almost killed by this exacting labor. That part of the business which I could do without this extreme labor — the typesetting, &c. — was always pleasant to me, for it gave me all the opportunity a lean purse then permitted to secure the rudiments of education. Indeed this is why I chose the trade."

Within a year, however, financial troubles forced Kennedy to release Cameron from his apprenticeship, and the young man migrated to Harrisburg. Here, he apprenticed himself to James Peacock, a local printer and publisher of the Pennsylvania Republican. Recalling these events during the Civil War, Cameron claimed, "I came to Harrisburg — a poor, delicate, sickly boy — without any reliance but on the overruling control of Providence and the reward which I had been taught to believe would always follow proper actions." He stopped at the first printing office he found to ask for work, after which he "left with a feeling such as can be experienced only by those who are willing to work, are without money in their purse, and are destitute of friends upon whom to rely, when told 'we cannot employ you.' ... The first place at which I stopped to rest my weary limbs after reaching the town was beneath the shade of an old willow tree in front of [Judge Hummel's] house. He came out and spoke kindly to me, inviting me into his home ... a day or two after ... I obtained employment." Simon Cameron never forgot this kindness, and in adulthood, he returned the favor through generosity toward impecunious but talented young men.

Inevitably, apprenticing at the Pennsylvania Republican introduced Cameron to the chaotic world of Pennsylvania politics because, by the 1810s, newspapers were highly partisan businesses that relied on the patronage of influential politicians for their survival. Looking back at his apprenticeship forty years later, Cameron noted, "In my position as a newspaper journalist, I necessarily came into contact with political theories and important questions of the day and never failed to advocate what I conceived to be a wise and beneficial state policy." He made a point of regularly attending sessions of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, boasting in 1842 that he had been to "every session [of the assembly], more or less, since 1817. I have been upon the most intimate terms with the Legislature. Many years, I have known every member of the Legislature."

Cameron's apprenticeship coincided with two important political developments: the emergence of a single dominant party in national and Pennsylvania politics and the growing enfranchisement of white males. Following John Adams's unsuccessful reelection bid in 1800, the Federalist Party went into sharp decline, becoming essentially a regional party thereafter. On the national level, U.S. politics became dominated by the Democratic-Republicans, who identified with Thomas Jefferson. Usually calling themselves simply "Republicans," they controlled the White House and Congress until the mid-1820s. At the same time, American politics became more democratic after 1800. Of the sixteen states in the Union in 1800, presidential electors of ten were selected by those states' legislatures, and only two selected electors through popular vote. A quarter of a century later, the legislatures of only six states still selected the states' electors. By the election of 1832, that number had dropped to one: South Carolina. Meanwhile, many states liberalized their suffrage qualifications. By 1824 most states allowed nearly all white males to vote.

Democratization required a substantial shift in the way politicians campaigned because "the management of the party type of politics required considerable manpower, demanded the expenditure of large amounts of time on routine or trivial matters, called for talents that were by no means restricted to the gentry, and offered tangible rewards in the form of patronage and prestige to attract men from many ranks and callings." Surveying Pennsylvania's politics in this period, historian Richard McCormick concluded that "politics became the business of men who were interested in the tangible rewards of jobs and money" — in other words, professional political operatives. In short, democratization, which was far along in Pennsylvania during the 1820s, created the ideal conditions for Cameron's rise to influence, and the rewards — patronage jobs and lucrative government contracts — were plentiful.

Because of the Republicans' dominance of national politics during this period, campaigns focused more on individuals than on political ideals. In the words of historian Richard P. McCormick, "Where virtually all leaders, candidates, and voters professed the same party allegiance, contests for offices ... might be waged on the basis of personalities or between factions." These "cults of personality" — there is no other phrase for it — were, in the words of Martin Van Buren biographer Ted Widmer, "little cabals dedicated to electing their leaders to higher office and willing to stop at nothing to do it." However, "the abundance of state patronage did not, in Pennsylvania, serve as a cement for party organization." If anything, the opposite was true: squabbles over patronage factionalized the party, so each side funded reliable newspapers (called "organs") to marshal support.

Given the important role newspapers played in American politics, it should come as no surprise that, while apprenticing with James Peacock, Cameron met the secretary of the commonwealth, Samuel D. Ingham. For a young man interested in social advancement, there was no better acquaintance than Ingham, who was a prosperous paper mill owner and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Ingham was politically well connected and a member of the Family Party. Created by George Mifflin Dallas, a prominent Philadelphia Democratic-Republican (known hereafter as "Republicans"), the Family Party took its name from the fact that its main leaders — Ingham, William Wilkins, Richard Bache, Thomas Sergeant, John J. Norvall, and Thomas J. Rogers — were all related to Dallas.

Ingham clearly understood the important role that journalists and newspaper editors played in a rapidly democratizing political environment. At the moment Ingham met Cameron, the Family Party was locked in a bitter factional struggle for control over the Republican Party in Bucks County. In Doylestown, the county seat, two rival newspapers — Ingham's Messenger and the Doylestown Democrat — vied for control of the party. The Messenger survived primarily on state printing, which Ingham secured though his connections to state officials, though this appears not to have been enough to support its editor, Simon Seigfried. When Seigfried left the paper, Ingham tapped Cameron to take it over, which the young man did on January 2, 1821.

From the beginning, Cameron sought to unify Bucks County's various Republican factions, which in practice meant avoiding any topic that might alienate potential voters. Under the headline "To the Public," he declared,

Having purchased the establishment of the Bucks County Messenger from Mr. Seigfried, I propose to continue its publication. In commencing my editorial career, I conceive it a duty on me to make known the principles on which I intend conducting the paper in the future. ... I will briefly state that the character of the Messenger shall be purely democratic. At the same time, it will keep aloof from all local divisions or prejudices that may exist in the Republican ranks; nor shall it ever assail the character of private individuals. But it will keep a vigilant eye on the conduct of public men, and expose all errors as soon as detected.

A few months later, he published "To Your Tents, O Israel," a plea for party unity in the October state elections. The column argued, "In the selection that has been made of candidates, dislikes may possibly be opposed to some one or other on the democratic ticket, but surely on such an occasion as the present, when union and activity are so necessary to support the general cause, candid men will not divide. It is not possible to please every individual; and perhaps it may appear in some instances that a better choice might have been made."

Because Cameron wanted to extinguish, rather than stoke, partisan fires, the Messenger took few explicit editorial stands during his tenure as editor. Given his later flirtation with nativism, it is worth noting that, on January 16, 1821, the paper printed a message from Robert Wharton, the mayor of Philadelphia. Under the headline "Public Information," Wharton asserted "that there have been, for at least [twelve or fifteen years], a number of foreigners, of good address but of base and depraved principles, who have visited our country with forged credentials, counterfeit recommendations, and spurious statements of alleged losses. These sons of deception have traversed the country in every direction, exhibiting their false documents for the purpose of obtaining money for the ostensible object of redeeming some of their near relatives from Algerine Slavery, others to rebuild churches destroyed by fire or earthquakes, [or] to assist distressed villagers." Wharton sent this message to the "printers of the United States," asking them to print it in their newspapers "when there is a dearth of news." Cameron complied, printing the notice at least twice during the time he owned the paper, suggesting he agreed with the advertisement's sentiment, though it is also possible he was merely being a dutiful Republican.

Given Cameron's later prominence in banking, it is unsurprising that the Messenger strongly defended the Second Bank of the United States. In an article titled "United States Bank," which does not appear to have been reprinted from another newspaper, the authors claim, "The United States bank has been solemnly designed to be a constitutional ... institution by congress, by the executive and the judiciary of the union. The conduct of Ohio, in thus attempting to outlaw that bank, in thus endeavoring to shield the citizens of that state, who owe the institution two or three millions of dollars, from the payment of their just debts, is not only hostile to the government and peace of the union, but is very little better than an indirect method of sanctioning swindling."

These tantalizing clues about Cameron's political ideas can only be read backward, given what we know about his later beliefs, and should therefore be treated cautiously. Nonetheless, it appears that, by his early twenties, Cameron had embraced the pro-business nationalism that was a bedrock political belief for the rest of his life.

Cameron was in dire financial straits in Doylestown because the patronage Ingham had promised never materialized in sufficient quantity to support him. Out of desperation, Cameron merged the Messenger with the Democrat, partnering with the rival paper's editor, Benjamin Mifflin. In October 1821, Mifflin and Cameron published a "Valedictory," celebrating their achievements in "seeing the [party] of the county firmly united, notwithstanding the many attempts that have been made to prevent this desirable object." However, they announced that Cameron would be leaving, noting that "the increase of patronage, although considerable, has not been sufficient to warrant two editors, this we presume will be a sufficient answer to the many enquiries that may be made as to our reason for selling out." After selling his share of the paper, Cameron left Doylestown at the end of 1821.

Following his departure from Doylestown, Cameron worked briefly as a compositor in Washington at the Congressional Globe, which published Congress's official proceedings. The work was ideal for a young man interested in politics, though the pay was so low Cameron found it impossible to save money. At the end of the congressional session, Cameron briefly returned to James Peacock's printing office in Harrisburg. Soon, however, he managed to secure a loan from his uncle that allowed him to purchase the Pennsylvania Republican. Recalling the story years later, Cameron described how he accompanied his uncle to the older man's barn. There, his uncle produced a bundle of bills and slowly counted out $400. He recalled, "It looked to me the largest amount of money I ever saw up to that time. It was in one- and two-dollar notes, and as I took it in my hands I could hardly realize that I had control of so much money."

Shortly after purchasing the Pennsylvania Republican, Cameron merged it with Charles Mowry's Pennsylvania Intelligencer. Mowry bought the Intelligencer in 1821 from Cameron's former master, James Peacock, and used it as a platform for vigorously supporting former governor William Findlay. Consequently, the Intelligencer was far more partisan than the Messenger. Mowry boasted to his readers in 1821, "This paper shall be a decidedly political one, devoted to the best interests of the people, on the republican principles which the editor is known to profess and practice. It shall not descend to littler, vulgar, personal squabbles, with its fellow-prints, nor ransack the Billingsgate catalogue, for epithets to apply to its opponents; yet the official conduct of public officers shall be scrutinized with a vigilant eye, and their errors fearlessly exposed, whenever the public good shall require it."


Excerpted from Amiable Scoundrel by Paul Kahan. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Introduction: "Warm Friends and Bitter Enemies"

1. "A Determined Will and a Right Purpose"

2. "The Great Winnebago Chief," 1838–45

3. "True-Hearted Pennsylvanian, Able, Fearless, and Unflinching," 1845–49

4. "Exclude Him from the Ranks of the Democratic Party," 1849–60

5. "What They Worship Is the God of Success," 1860–61

6. "Then Profit Shall Accrue," 1861–62

7. "Gentlemen, the Paragraph Stands," 1861–62

8. "A Man Out of Office in Washington," 1862–67

9. "Nothing Can Beat You," 1867–77

10. "I’ll Behave Myself as Long as I’m Here," 1877–89

Conclusion: "I Did the Best I Could and Was Never Untrue to a Friend"




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