Biography of a politician whose name “has become synonymous with corruption and graft during the Civil War.”
Historians agree that Abraham Lincoln chose his Cabinet well, and they also agree on the single exception: Simon Cameron (1799-1889), the Pennsylvania political boss appointed secretary of war but dismissed after a year for incompetence and corruption. Not so fast, writes Kahan (History/Ohlone Coll.; The Bank War: Andrew Jackson, Nicholas Biddle, and the Fight for American Finance, 2015, etc.) in this lively re-evaluation of a skillful politician who rose from poverty to prominence in his 20s and remained for 50 years. A candidate for the 1860 Republican nomination, Cameron threw support to Lincoln when offered a Cabinet position. However, writes the author, “as a backslapping, glad-handing politician, he was used to charming legislators…but…was totally unable to switch gears into being an administrator.” Although Cameron worked hard, if inefficiently, Kahan admits that he favored his home state. He hired cronies, punished enemies, and directed lucrative contracts to supporters—though the author notes that other Cabinet members and the president did the same. Never on friendly terms, Lincoln disliked Cameron’s pressure to free slaves and recruit blacks into the army, a position the president later adopted. Almost everyone except his coterie cheered when the president shunted him off as ambassador to Russia; he returned after a few months to continue for another 15 years as a powerful player in Pennsylvania and national politics. Kahan’s Cameron is a likable career political boss devoted to supporting Pennsylvania business interests and winning elections. This required attracting and enriching loyal followers and, inevitably, enriching himself using tactics that 19th-century politicians took for granted. His plentiful enemies did not occupy a higher moral ground, but their attacks were not always misplaced.
A fine political biography that does not entirely rehabilitate its subject.