Historical Markers
Simon Cameron Historical Marker
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Simon Cameron

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
W. High St. near Square, Maytown

Dedication Date:
June 9, 1951

Behind the Marker

Oil on canvas painting of Simon Cameron, dressed in a dark suit is seated a desk and is holding a quill pen.
Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, by John Dabour, 1871.
During the 1860 Republican national convention, Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron (1799-1889) commanded the delegates of the second most populous state in the Union. The Pennsylvania delegation supported ardent abolitionist William Seward until Cameron gave their votes to the less well-known Abraham Lincoln, in return for the promise that he would become secretary of the treasury. Lincoln instead appointed Cameron his Secretary of War.

In a story told widely in the decades that followed, Lincoln, upon his arrival in Washington, asked Pennsylvania Republican congressman markerThaddeus Stevens the following question about Cameron's honesty: "You don't mean to say you think Cameron would steal?" In response, Stevens dryly answered, "No. I do not believe he would steal a red-hot stove." When Cameron, upon hearing of Stevens' quip, demanded an apology, the crusty Republican congressman is reputed to have replied that he could have been wrong: Cameron might steal a red hot stove.

Albumen silver print of James Gillespie Blaine, ¾ length, right hand tucked inside of coat.
James Gillespie Blaine, by David H. Anderson, c. 1884
In charge of mobilization after the outbreak of the Civil War, Cameron appointed friends and party faithful to the War Department and paid well-connected people inflated prices for horses and supplies.

As early as December 1861, he also urged that the army enroll slaves, a request that outraged those who still hoped for a quick, negotiated solution to the war. To control the damage, Lincoln sent Cameron as far away as possible by appointing him minister to Russia in January 1862.

This did not, however, prevent the House of Representative from censuring Cameron for giving unqualified individuals free rein to negotiate military contracts, or the Pennsylvania legislature from refusing to return him to the Senate in 1863.

After the end of the war, however, Cameron was politically reborn. As Congress fought with President Andrew Johnson over control of Reconstruction, Cameron's once radical opposition to slavery, and his continued political clout in the state, made him a viable candidate for high office.

In 1867 the Pennsylvania legislature returned Cameron to the United States Senate for a third time. For the next decade, Cameron reigned as the first and undisputed boss of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and the Commonwealth. The political "machine," as it was called, that he constructed would control the state of Pennsylvania for the next seventy years.

Born in Lancaster County in 1799, Simon Cameron began his rise to political power in the 1820s, when he parlayed the modest wealth he had acquired as one of several state printers into a fortune built on investment in canals, railroads, and banking.

The decades before the Civil War were years of tremendous economic opportunity, minimal oversight, and great corruption, an era when resourceful entrepreneurs turned politicians made fortunes by engineering state support of transportation companies and other business enterprises in which they were themselves heavily invested.

Head and shoulders
Robert Mackey, circa 1877.
n 1826 Cameron received a contract from the state to build the portion of the marker Pennsylvania canal that connected Harrisburg with Sunbury. In 1831 he organized the building of a canal between Lake Ponchartrain and New Orleans in Louisiana, employing Pennsylvania workmen and supplies that floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Such was his influence in Pennsylvania by this time that President Andrew Jackson employed him as floor leader of the 1832 national Democratic convention to ensure that Martin Van Buren rather than John C. Calhoun, who had defied Jackson by supporting South Carolina's right to nullify a federal tariff the previous year, would get the vice-presidential nomination.

That year, Cameron invested his profits in the Bank of Middletown, and then used the bank's funds to finance several railroads in the state, and to make loans to politicians who received favorable interest rates and debt forgiveness if they did his bidding.

In 1845 Cameron defeated marker James Buchanan, in a special election for the United States Senate. Defeated in his bid for re-election in 1849, he then turned first to the American or Know-Nothing Party, and then in 1856 to the newly formed Republican Party.

He built a mansion in Harrisburg close to the state house, where he could entertain and influence businessmen and legislators from throughout the state. He also forged close ties with the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), and in 1857 engineered the bill that sold state's the Main Line Canal system to the PRR.

Four years later, he was instrumental in convincing the legislature to abolish taxes on railroads. In 1857 he again won election to the Senate through his wealth, personal contacts, and what Thaddeus Stevens termed "wholesale private bribery." An ardent supporter of the protective tariff that insulated Pennsylvania's growing iron and textile industries from British competition, Cameron also opposed the extension of slavery, a position that helped carry him to Lincoln's cabinet as Secretary of War.

James Donald Cameron, senator from Pennsylvania, three-quarter length portrait, standing, facing left.
Pennsylvania Senator James Donald Cameron, circa 1878.
After the Pennsylvania legislature returned Cameron to the United States Senate in 1867, he continued to support protective tariffs, now as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and to support freedmen's rights during Reconstruction. A close friend of President Ulysses S. Grant, he also was able in 1876 to arrange for the appointment of his son, marker J. Donald Cameron as Secretary of War.

At the 1876 Republican Convention, Cameron again controlled the powerful Pennsylvania delegation, whose support he withdrew from front-runner James G. Blaine when Blaine refused to promise him a cabinet job. Cameron's decision ensured the nomination of Rutherford B. Hayes, who once elected president, removed Donald from his post.

Now seventy-eight, Simon Cameron arranged for his son to replace him both as state boss and U.S. Senator. The day after Cameron resigned his seat in 1877, Governor markerJohn Hartranft to appointed Donald Cameron to fill his seat, a move confirmed by the Pennsylvania legislature in the next election. Simon Cameron then traveled extensively before dying at the age of ninety in 1889. His mansion on Front Street in Harrisburg is now the Dauphin County Historical Society.

Simon Cameron was one of many Pennsylvanians - fellow bosses and United States Senators markerMatthew Quay and Boies Penrose among them - who ensured that Pennsylvania remained a Republican-controlled state in the nation from the Civil War until the 1930s. Brokering deals and distributing patronage among the state's many geographical and economic regions, he enjoyed, if that is the word, a national and well-deserved reputation for corruption. He was never convicted of any crime, however, and, whatever his faults, was steadfast in support for his state's economic growth and the rights of African Americans.

To learn more about Cameron's business career marker click here.
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