Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Simon Cameron (1861–1862): Secretary of War

Simon Cameron was born in 1799 in Maytown, Pennsylvania. After serving as a printer’s apprentice, he began work as an editor of a local newspaper in 1821. When that newspaper folded, he ran a second newspaper before moving to Washington, D.C., where he worked at a printing firm. Cameron then returned to Pennsylvania, where he became a contractor and ultimately the founder and president of a bank.

Having become a wealthy man, Cameron refused a Democratic nomination to Congress, but he reconsidered in 1845 and was elected to the United States Senate. He served three terms as a senator (1845-1849, 1857-1861, 1867-1877) and spent those years creating the “Cameron machine” that dominated Pennsylvania politics and patronage throughout the nineteenth century.

Cameron eventually left the Democratic Party over the issue of slavery, joined the Republicans, and headed back to the Senate. He supported Abraham Lincoln’s presidential candidacy and resigned his Senate seat in 1861 when the newly elected President Lincoln tapped him to become secretary of war. Cameron served one year in the position before corruption and inefficiency in the department led to his removal from the cabinet. Lincoln then posted Cameron to Russia, where he served as United States minister for one year before returning to the United States.

He failed to win election to the Senate in 1863 but was successful in 1867, spending the next decade in Congress. Cameron ultimately resigned his Senate seat in 1877 so his son could take his place. Simon Cameron died in 1889.