[Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War by Paul Kahan (Potomac Books, 2016). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. 367 pp. ISBN:978-1-61234-814-8. $36.95]
In the popular mind, Simon Cameron is chiefly remembered for two things, his breathtaking personal corruption and a dismal record of incompetence as Abraham Lincoln's first Secretary of War. According to Paul Kahan, author of Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War, both conclusions are grossly oversimplified and unfair characterizations of the life and career of a major figure in nineteenth century American politics. In Kahan's view, there is much to admire in Cameron, who rose from poverty to the heights of state and national power, demonstrating along the way strong loyalty to friends and allies while spending an entire political career tirelessly promoting the interests of his home state of Pennsylvania. An anti-slavery moderate, he was also comparatively liberal on race.
Simon Cameron was born in 1799 in Maytown, Pennsylvania. His father's business failures and early death left the elder Cameron's wife and children in dire financial straits, and, like his older siblings, young Simon was taken in by a prominent local family. Devouring all available reading material, Cameron devoted himself to personal advancement. His newspaper apprenticeship exposed him to the great political events and concerns of the day and fueled personal ambitions for a future in public life. While he eventually partnered in his own newspaper endeavors, Cameron's most fruitful occupational pursuit was banking, and the connections he made in both spheres fostered his growing influence in Pennsylvania's Democratic politics.
In evaluating historical charges that Cameron was exceptionally corrupt, Kahan begins his analysis with the budding politician's first public appointment. In 1838, Cameron obtained a patronage job from President Van Buren and powerful Pennsylvania Senator James Buchanan as one of the commissioners assigned to handle individual cash claims related to the government's 1837 land settlement with the Winnebago. Though a subsequent investigation cleared Cameron, who was accused of defrauding or allowing others to defraud claimants, the taint of corruption from the Winnebago affair would follow him throughout his political career. While it seems possible that Cameron's hands were not entirely clean, the author found no direct evidence to support the accusations, which were likely to a large degree politically motivated. This is a common theme in the book's examination of the many allegations made against Cameron for misusing high office for personal gain.
All his life, Cameron was an enthusiastic supporter and practitioner of the federal spoils and patronage system, but he comes across in Amiable Scoundrel as more of a skilled operator than an exceptionally venal actor. A distinction should also be made between outright fraud, bribery, or profiteering and the acceptable political methods of the period that would be considered "corrupt" today (like the aforementioned spoils and patronage system). It wasn't always smooth sailing, however. As Kahan describes in the book, Cameron clashed with president and fellow Democrat James Polk over appointments, exposing one of the great sources of friction within the patronage system. Traditionally, chief executives deferred to legislators of the same party when it came to home state appointments, but sometimes presidents (like Polk) assumed the privilege for themselves without consulting congressional allies. While supportive of the annexation of Texas and the War with Mexico, Cameron did break with Polk over adjusting the Tariff of 1842 (its revision known as the Walker Tariff), and this action made Cameron something of a hero to Pennsylvania's business interests. While other northern Democrats went down to defeat in the aftermath, Cameron's personal position was strengthened through his widely known opposition to weakening measures designed to protect northern industries.
Critics at the time regarded Cameron as a shameless and disloyal political opportunist, but Kahan usefully reminds us that the party system itself was fluid during the early to mid nineteenth century, with national movements and parties coming and going with some frequency. Cameron began political life as a Jacksonian Democrat but was often more Whig-like in ideology (he was pro-bank, a high-tariff protectionist, and supported government funding of internal improvements). Later on, he associated himself with the short-lived Know-Nothings before finally landing in the upstart Republican Party in 1856. According to Kahan, through all these political changes, Cameron viewed his primary job to be the champion of Pennsylvania interests, especially its businesses and industries. Career long stances on slavery, banks, high tariffs, immigration limits, and internal improvements made his career of party switching more a matter of consistent progression than unprincipled opportunism.
In the book, the author ably uses Cameron's status within the "Improvements Wing" to discuss factionalism within the Democratic Party. Other interesting insights into Pennsylvania state politics of the period are offered, as well, with the book documenting Cameron's early associations with the powerful Family Party. Pennsylvania Democrats cried foul over Cameron's first election to the U.S. Senate in 1845 (where he served four years as a replacement for Buchanan), sensing a corrupt bargain with the opposition. Going against the broader theme of unfailing loyalty to friends, accusations of personal betrayal at the party's presidential nominating convention for the 1852 election marked the beginning of a break between Cameron and erstwhile friend James Buchanan, which further fractured the state party apparatus. Cameron returned to the Senate at the same time that his now nemesis Buchanan entered the White House. Opposing Buchanan and solidly in the anti-slavery camp, Cameron (a popular figure among his state's voters, if not many of its politicians) himself sought the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860. When it became clear that Cameron could not secure the big prize and would instead be promised a cabinet position, the anti-Cameron forces again went on the offensive, attempting to convince Lincoln of the old standby charges of corruption. Things were eventually smoothed over, and Cameron was offered the position of Secretary of War, but infighting between Cameron supporters and those of Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin remained.
The constant stream of rumor, innuendo, and outright accusations of official malfeasance against Cameron only increased during his brief stint as Secretary of War, when seemingly all of his enemies came out of the woodwork. When these charges were brought to Lincoln himself, the president invariably asked for proof, and, when none was forthcoming, let the matter drop. Kahan is to be commended for demanding clear evidence of graft before being willing to condemn his subject, but with so much smoke there almost certainly must have been fire somewhere. Politically motivated character assassination surely cannot entirely account for the sheer volume of complaints flying in from so many different directions.
Cameron was also widely believed to be grossly incompetent for the job of running the Union's war machine. Kahan readily acknowledges that Cameron's chief political talents were associated with fostering personal relationships and not at all in bureaucratic administration (a skill set surely making him a poor candidate for Secretary of War), but the author does reserve for Cameron the lion's share of credit for successfully mobilizing a vast national army on a scale unprecedented in U.S. history. There's certainly something to be said for a department head deserving credit due the top position, but the book's treatment of the issue lacks specific examples of critical directives originating from Cameron himself of a type and level that might lead readers to question the conventional wisdom regarding his "failed" War Department leadership. In fact, the book's discussion of Cameron's actions as Secretary of War during the conflict's first year is rather disappointingly brief, with more attention paid to the political machinations of his enemies than to details of how Cameron performed the duties of the office. While the book covers to general satisfaction the nervous struggle to secure the capital in the first months of the war and the arrests of allegedly disloyal elements in Maryland, there's little discussion of what role, if any, Cameron played in either formulating the early strategic plans of the Union military or in carrying them out. The author does praise Cameron's foresight in supporting very early on in the war more aggressive measures like the use of black troops in suppressing the rebellion, anticipating a possible blueprint for victory that many others would only advocate at a much later (and politically safer) date. However, to play devil's advocate, one might also view maverick promotion of a revolutionary policy in race relations at a time when Border State support was at its most precarious to be a further sign of Cameron's lack of suitability for his position. The book argues that this specific policy disagreement, not allegations of widespread corruption, was the chief factor behind Cameron's forced resignation.
Accepting the diplomatic post of Minister to Russia after the humiliating end to his brief tenure as Secretary of War, Cameron served only briefly before returning home, where he repaired his relationship with Lincoln and set himself to dominating his home state's political machine. In addition to coming out on top of the incessant faction wars of Pennsylvania's Republicans, Cameron campaigned for black voting rights and advancement opportunities. He returned to the U.S. Senate in 1867 and held the position for ten years before yielding it to his son. He battled successive Republican presidents over appointments and predictably opposed Rutherford B. Hayes's civil service reform initiative. In retirement, Cameron, ever the shrewd business investor, amassed a fortune for his heirs. He also deflected another great scandal (successfully defending a breach of promise suit brought by a "Mrs. Oliver") before he died in 1889. With a series of generous bequeathals to charities, Cameron's will put the capstone on a lifelong personal mission to aid the unfortunate.
Like all good biographers, Kahan effectively mined Cameron archives at many different locations, and his research promotes a much more nuanced appreciation of the wily Keystone politician. Between the 1830s and the approach of the century's end (the period spanning Simon Cameron's active public life), America underwent a bewildering transformation of growth and change, and another great strength of the study lies in its masterful presentation of the political and social milieu that Cameron operated within. Whatever one ultimately thinks of Paul Kahan's portrait of Simon Cameron as a politician who was never as corrupt as posterity has been led to believe and who deserves oracle status regarding what needed to be done to achieve Union victory, the author deserves a great deal of credit for tackling a difficult historical reappraisal with zest and skill. Amiable Scoundrel is a political biography that every Civil War student should read.