The Cabinet: Simon Cameron (1799-1889)
Simon Cameron fought hard to be included in President Lincoln's Cabinet. "That his reputation was not spotless was not altogether a negative," noted historian David Donald . "Lincoln always had a fondness for slightly damaged characters, like Mark Delahay, [Ward Hill] Lamon, and [William H. Herndon]. The two very practical politicians hit it off at once and the next day, as Cameron was preparing to go home, Lincoln sent him a brief note promising that he would nominate him for either Secretary of the Treasury or Secretary of War."1
Cameron's sleazy reputation was well known and generated a drumbeat of opposition to his nomination in Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington. However, "Cameron and Lincoln were another of those odd couples that politics occasionally produces, to the wonderment of all. Cameron was a political insider of the slickest kind. For helping nominate Lincoln in Chicago in 1860, Lincoln's floor managers had promised him a cabinet seat. Lincoln had honored the promise and appointed him secretary of war," wrote John Waugh in Reelecting Lincoln. "Cameron was slight man with a thin, calculating mouth, deepset, keen gray eyes, and gray hair. But he was a political heavyweight, the shrewdest of the Pennsylvania politicians. He turned out to be a far better politician than an administrator, and in January 1862 Lincoln had eased him out and replaced him with Edwin Stanton, who was a far better administrator than a politician."2
The Chicago Tribune's Joseph Medill wrote President-elect Lincoln from Washington in December: "Republicans here all say, that Pennsylvania should have a good place in the Cabinet - Sec of Treasury or Interior: but that it should not be Cameron: that Simon Cameron and Honest Abe don't sound well together. As Senator [Kingsley] Bingham observed to me, 'Lincoln don't want a thief in his cabinet, to have charge of the Treasury'."3 Even for Mr. Lincoln, the incongruity of Cameron's nomination was striking: "All that I am in the world, the Presidency and all else, I owe to the opinion of me which people express when they call me 'honest old Abe.' Now, what would they think of their 'honest old Abe' if he should make such an appointment as the one proposed?" Historian Burton J. Hendrick noted that "Lincoln was not the only President had entertained an unfavorable view of this lithe Pennsylvania." So had Presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk and James Buchanan.4
In his pursuit of a cabinet position Cameron aligned himself with the David Davis-Leonard Swett group of Mr. Lincoln's friends - who were allied to William H. Seward and Thurlow Weed. The Seward faction strongly backed Cameron, who had been a silent partner in Seward's nomination fight. Thurlow Weed later wrote: about discussions he had with President:
"I said that I had personally known General Cameron for twenty-five years; that for the last ten years I had seen a good deal of him; that whenever I had met him in Washington or elsewhere he had treated me with much kindness, inspiring me with friendly feeling. 'But you do not,' said Mr. Lincoln, 'say what you think about him for the cabinet.' On that subject I replied that I was embarrassed; that Mr. Cameron during a long and stirring political life had made warm friends and bitter enemies; that while his appointment would gratify his personal friends, it would offend his opponents, among whom were many of the leading and influential Republicans of that State..."5
But the anti-Cameron pressure was also strong - not only because they wanted to block Cameron from being Secretary of the Treasury but because they wanted Salmon P. Chase for that post. The anti-Cameron group included anti-Cameron Republicans allied with newly elected Governor Andrew Curtain and Pennsylvania Republican Chairman Alexander K. McClure. It also included a powerful group of New York City editors including Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune and William Culled Bryant of the New York Evening Post. "At this point it was evident that Lincoln still hoped to keep Cameron out of the cabinet, but he had failed to get the declination which would have avoided embarrassment, while he had made friendly gestures toward the Cameron group," wrote James G. Randall. "It seemed, however, that as long as Cameron's ambitions were not met Lincoln was to have no peace. 'Delegations of Cameronites from New York and Pennsylvania descended almost daily upon Lincoln in the last two weeks of January' while David Davis at this time was said to be 'quite huffy' because of the objections raised to Cameron. There was further hauling and tugging, and Lincoln, still hesitating, told clamoring politicians in New York in February that he would have to take the responsibility, which he did by making Cameron his secretary of war. As will appear later, this was but the beginning of further grief."6
Historians Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin, noted that the New York opposition was augmented by resistance from the owners of the Chicago Tribune and the wealth of pejorative stories that attached themselves to Cameron: "Opposition to Cameron came not alone from the Curtinites of Pennsylvania. Other groups outside of the Keystone State now joined the anti-Cameron forces. Joseph Medill, Charles H. Ray, and Horace White, who edited and published the influential Chicago Press & Tribune, wanted no part of the wily Pennsylvanian. To give him a place in the Cabinet would, they declared, be catastrophic. Moreover, they wanted Chase in the Cabinet to offset the Cameron-Seward influence. [Charles] Ray and [Joseph] Medill, according to the latter's biographer, were fearful that Weed, Cameron, and Caleb Smith would get control of the Cabinet. White, equally apprehensive, protested to Senator Trumbull: '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.' At this time - the closing days of December 1860- the Judd-Trumbull, or anti-Davis, anti-Seward, anti-Cameron faction of the Illinois Republicans received support from Vice President-elect Hamlin, who had no love for Cameron. On December 27 Hamlin wrote to Lincoln protesting against Cameron's possible appointment. Apparently Hamlin's letter reached Lincoln or was read by him shortly after the latter had on December 31 handed Cameron the written invitation to join the Cabinet family."7
Cameron had arrived in Springfield to visit the President on December 30. Once word leaked out that he had been offered a Cabinet position, Mr. Lincoln was swamped by opposition and he tried to reverse his decision. On January 3, 1861, President-elect Lincoln wrote Cameron: "Since seeing you things have developed which make it impossible for me to take you into the cabinet. You will say this comes of an interview with McClure; and this is partly, but not wholly, true. The more potent matter is wholly outside of Pennsylvania, and yet I am not at liberty to specify it." Cameron declined to take the bait - despite Mr. Lincoln's request that he submit his declination.
Cameron simply redoubled the efforts of his allies to counteract the Curtain and Chase forces. And eventually, when Mr. Lincoln arrived in Washington, he duly appointed Cameron to the War Department - reserving the Treasury Department for Salmon P. Chase. The burdens which the Civil War imposed on Cameron proved beyond his capacity to cope. He had to battle a three-front war: problems in recruiting and supplying troops; allegations of corruption by suppliers and Union incompetence in the field. By the end of 1861, it was evident that he needed to be replaced.
Historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote that "The one way of saving his official head, as Cameron diagnosed the situation, was to make himself so acceptable to Sumner, Ben Wade, Chandler and others - for the most part, the Chase following that they would insist on his retention in the cabinet. In accordance with this strategy, Cameron in the latter part of the year, played his final card. His report for the year 1861, to be submitted to Congress on December 1, contained a passage recommending again that creation of a slave army to which Lincoln, at this stage of proceedings had shown himself so inexorably opposed."8 This created a crisis when President Lincoln read the passage and found out that copies of Cameron's report were already in the mail and that one copy had made its way into the New York Tribune.
"Late in the evening of the day that these were sent, the government printer took a copy to the President, saying he thought he ought to look it over and see if it was satisfactory. He stated, also, that a number of copies of the report had been already ordered from the printing-office," wrote artist Francis A. Carpenter, who spent several years in the White House painting the Emancipation Proclamation. "Mr. Lincoln glanced over the copy placed in his hands, and his eye rested upon the passage in question, which had reference to arming the slaves. Instantly he was aroused. 'This will never do!' said he. 'Gen. Cameron must take no such responsibility. That is a question which belongs exclusively to me!' Then, with a pencil, he struck out the objectionable clause, and ordered measures to be taken at once to suppress the copies already issued."9
Historian James G. Randall took a different view of Cameron's motivation: "Unquestionably he was sincere in his repeated assertions that to strike at slavery was to strike at the root of insurrection. The theory that he was taking an abolitionist stand in order to gain Radical protection against dismissal is unjust. For one reason, he was aware by October that his fate was determined. 'I knew I was doomed when I consented to go to St. Louis,' he shortly assured old F. P. Blair, 'and was not altogether clear of suspicion that it was intended I should be by one of my associates [Seward], but having determined to shrink from no duty I went cheerfully, only taking care to let the President know my belief, and to get his promise that I should be allowed to go abroad when I left the Department.' He knew Lincoln well enough to understand that no Radical intervention could help him. Moreover, this vigorous Jacksonian (now sixty-two, he was destined to live to ninety) had long detested slavery, and believed that blows at it would shorten the war. 'I can safely say,' he told Blair, 'that I have not done an official act that I would not do again, under the same circumstances. But there are many things I would have done, which were omitted only because my associates were not as advanced as I was in hostility to the rebellion."10
Artist Carpenter noted "the friendly relations which existed between the President and Secretary Cameron were not interrupted by the retirement of the latter from the War Office."11 Nevertheless, within a month after the fiasco over his report, Cameron had submitted his resignation. "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."12 Cameron said that the President told him to tell Stanton that "if he accepts, I will send his nomination as Secretary, and yours as minister to Russia, to the Senate together."13 Historian Allan Nevins wrote it was actually William H. "Seward, as Gideon Welles, Montgomery Blair, and others asserts, [who] was the prime mover in bringing Stanton forward." Nevins noted that President Lincoln "did not know, and Cameron did not tell him, that Stanton had helped write the antislavery passage in Cameron's report. In his letter of resignation in January, Cameron wrote:
"I have the honor to acknowledge your favor of this date, and to thank you, with profound respect, for its kind and generous tone. When you were elected President a result of which I contributed my best exertions. I had no thought of leaving the Senate of the U.S. or of accepting any position in your gift. But when you invited me to Springfield, Ill., and presented me the choice of two named places in the list of your constitutional advisers, I could not, for grave public reasons, and after great reflection, refuse a trust so trying and laborious. My life has been one of constant labor and excitement. I looked to the Senate as the best field after such a life, in which to serve my country and my State. It was only when I realized that I might be of service to the general cause in the darkly foreshadowed, future, that I ventured to undertake the manifold and various responsibilities of the War Dept. I felt when I saw the traitors leaving their seats in Congress and when I saw the traitors leaving their seats in Congress and when the Star of the West was fired upon in Charleston Harbor, that a bloody conflict was inevitable.
The President wrote Cameron two letters accepting his resignation on January 11, 1862. The first Cameron found offensively cold: "As you have, more than once, expressed a desire for a change of position, I can now gratify you, consistently with my view of the public interest. I therefore propose nominating you to the Senate, next Monday, as Minister to Russia."15 The second was notably more warm and complimentary:
Though I have said nothing hitherto in response to your wish, expressed long since, to resign your seat in the Cabinet, I have not been unmindful of it. I have been only unwilling to consent to a change at a time, and under circumstances which might give occasion to misconstruction, and unable till now, to see how such misconstruction could be avoided.
Cameron did not rush to Russia. He had no desire to experience Moscow in winter and never did. He waited until May to leave and came back in November 1862. He used the delay in his departure for his diplomatic post to defend himself against critics of his handling of the War Department. President Lincoln himself defended Cameron when he came under criticism by the House of Representatives, writing a special message to Congress on May 26, 1862.
Cameron had scarcely arrived in Russia before he wrote President Lincoln, requesting to return: "I should like to leave here by the middle of September, as then the lease of the house which I took from Mr. Clay to relieve him, will expire. The rent is a heavy item in the expenditures of a Minister, being over $3000 & more than one fourth of his yearly pay. Going at that time too, will enable me to reach home in time before the Pennsa. election to be of some service to my country, for I think your troubles will soon be removed from the Army to Congress. I shall make this application to the State Department officially - but I ask it now, from your friendship." Cameron added some flattery: "I have been gratified all over Europe to find the high reputation you are making, and from home, too, there are indications of a growing belief that you will have to be your own successor. While it is, in my judgment, the last place to find happiness, I think you will have to make up your mind to endure it."17 He didn't make it back in time for the elections - arriving in November 1862. But when Cameron dithered about whether he intended to return to Russia, President Lincoln pushed for a decision and Cameron finally resigned in February 1863 - freeing Cassius M. Clay to return to the post he had held before Cameron.
Cameron took a prominent role in securing the renomination of President Lincoln - but only in his usual calculating way, he had first surveyed the field. According to Cameron biographer Erwin Stanley Bradley, in 1863 Cameron considered supporting Union General Benjamin Butler, whose talent for creating publicity wherever he was assigned overshadowed his limited military abilities. Cameron observed Butler on the Pennsylvania campaign trail that year and discarded him as a candidate. According to biographer Bradley, "Cameron now began in the most calculating manner to gauge Lincoln's chances for re-election. Few men, it must be admitted, could match him in this difficult technique in a day when public polls were non-existent an 'public opinion' often constituted the whims of scheming politicians. Before the end of October he was observing reactions in public discussions to suggestions of Lincoln's renomination. By early December, 1863, reports from his lieutenants, added to his keen political perceptions, told him that although radical leadership might consider Lincoln's election destructive both to the party and its goals, there existed at the grassroots a great mass of loyal people who still believed in their President."18
Cameron's involvement with Butler was not finished. In late March 1864, contended Cameron biographer Erwin Stanley Bradley, President Lincoln delegated Cameron to sound Butler on a vice presidential nomination prior to President Lincoln himself paying a visit to Butler. "Cameron's mission to visit Butler at Fortress Monroe was assigned February 24, but he and his companion, William H. Armstrong did not go until a month later. Jokingly, the 'beast of New Orleans' agreed to accept the honor only on condition of being assured of Lincoln's death or resignation soon after his inauguration." On March 29, Cameron wrote the President: "I come from Ft. Monroe yesterday after spending three days there, during which time, I had much pleasant conversation with Gnl. Butler - part of which I would like to communicate to you."19 When Cameron made his report to the President in early April, the information he relayed apparently convinced Mr. Lincoln not to visit Butler.
John Hay recorded in his diary in early January 1864: "Cameron has written to the President that the entire Union force of the Pa. Legislature, House and Senate have subscribed a request the President will allow himself to be reelected, and that they intend visiting Washington to present it. He says 'I have kept my promise.'"20 In or out of office, Cameron peppered President Lincoln with correspondence - about politics, about military affairs, about introductions for friends, about seeing the president personally, about appointments Cameron wanted made, about people Cameron wanted dismissed and about correspondence that Cameron had received from or sent to others. During 1863 and 1864, Cameron regularly kept President Lincoln advised of the progress of politics in Pennsylvania and what actions needed to be taken by Mr. Lincoln. Along the line, he made sure that the President received negative information about Cameron's Republican opponents - Governor Andrew G. Curtain and Republican State Chairman Alexander K. McClure:
Cameron's influence in Pennsylvania and in the White House increased during 1864. "Accompanied by two of the Blairs, Cameron retreated into the wilds of northern Pennsylvania on fishing and hunting excursions. In August he disclosed his fears of defeat to national chairman Henry J. Raymond, but September saw some improvement in his outlook. He arranged speaking tours for energetic Unionists and sought campaign orators of national stature. He now envisioned, he confided to S. P. Case, victory in the October state elections. To Lincoln he reported: 'All looks well here in Philadelphia.' But the October elections returns failed to attain the majorities predicted by John W. Forney and Cameron," wrote biographer Bradley.30 On October 11, President Lincoln was in the War Department's telegraph office and telegraphed Cameron to find out the status of Pennsylvania's elections: "Am leaving office to go home. How does it stand now?" According to War Department telegraph operator Homer Bates, "Cameron's reply was hopeful but not conclusive."31
Cameron used his presidential connections to build his patronage base in Pennsylvania. It was not easy given the many competing influences and feuds in the state. One feud was with Congressman William D. Kelly, who also had strong connections with Philadelphia Press editor John W. Forney, another regular visitor to the White House. Cameron was incensed when he tried to get the House of Representatives to reverse its criticism of his handling of the War Department. "His close friend Cornelius Walborn, postmaster of Philadelphia, approached Congressman Kelly on the subject of using his influence on Cameron's behalf," wrote biographer Bradley. "Newspaper patter had it that Kelly replied: 'To stir foul matter would be to produce a stench." Cameron had a strong relationship with Postmaster General Montgomery Blair so it was not surprising when Post Office employees were mobilized to defeat Kelley. Cameron could easily have had another grudge against "Judge Kelly"; he was one of two Republican rivals to Cameron in the 1863 Senate election in the Pennsylvania State Legislature. Republican disunity helped election a Democrat.
Although there is not much evidence of Mrs. Lincoln's attitude toward Cameron while her husband was alive, she warmed toward him after her husband's death, writing" Gen Cameron, is proving himself a true friend, he is not unforgetful, as so many others, have been, of the kindness, of my beloved husband."32 Cameron had served in the Senate from 1845 to 1849 and 1857 to 1861. He returned to Senate from 1867 until 1877 when he turned his seat over to his son.
Salmon P. Chase (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
John W. Forney
Ulysses S. Grant
Ulysses S. Grant (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Carl Schurz (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Thaddeus Stevens (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Abraham Lincoln and the Election of 1864
Abraham Lincoln and Pennsylvania