Simon Cameron – Scandal in the Cabinet (Article 72)

“I have the ability to make money, I do not need to steal it.”  – Simon Cameron

Newly elected President Abraham Lincoln asked Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens about the honesty of Simon Cameron, also from Pennsylvania, who was seeking the Cabinet position of either Secretary of War or Secretary of Treasury. Stevens, well known for his acerbic wit, supposedly replied, “I do not believe he would steal a red-hot stove.” After his comments were leaked to Cameron who protested, Stevens then said, “On second thought, he would steal the hot stove.”

One contemporary of Cameron’s attempted to explain his combination of a gregarious personality and selfish interests by saying, “I always knew I would be fleeced, but I did enjoy the fleecing.” Cameron’s early years are difficult to explain because Cameron offered various versions over time; for example, early in his business career he claimed to be an orphan, but he was not. He became an apprentice with a printer and, at 21, started his own newspaper. He became a successful business man and a Pennsylvania political leader who was known to provide patronage to his friends and to withhold it from others. He was adept at raising money to finance rail lines, manufacturing facilities and a bank. Much of his own cash flow came from his appointment as the Pennsylvania state printer. He served as a U.S. Senator from his state both before and then after the Civil War. He often signed documents and letters as “General” but had never served in the military. When asked, he said that it derived from his position as Adjutant General of Pennsylvania (a largely administrative position) early in his career. He was derisively referred to in some newspapers as “The Great Winnebago Chief” for his self-rewarding efforts in settling a Native American dispute, and by others as “The Czar of Pennsylvania” for his control over much of the state’s political machinery.

Cameron’s quote that he did not “need to steal” was probably accurate because “Czar” Cameron was a master at patronage, the politician’s currency; simply stated as, “do something for me or mine, and I’ll do something for you or yours.” He understood the power of patronage and wielded it in local and state politics for years.

However, by 1860, Cameron had higher ambitions and hoped he might become the Republican Presidential nominee at that year’s convention; but, when he realized several others had more committed delegates, he set his sights on being named Treasury Secretary. The ultimate Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln, wanted his Cabinet to be geographically (and politically) diverse and he sought Cabinet members with their region as one qualifier; which gave Cameron a chance despite his record of cronyism. Although Lincoln had warned his floor managers at the Chicago Republican convention to not bind him to any federal appointments in return for delegate votes, Cameron may have received such assurances and Lincoln felt obligated to consider him for some post. Since he had a better qualified candidate for Treasury Secretary, in Salmon Chase, Lincoln finally asked Cameron to be the Secretary of War. Both were important Cabinet posts in an administration which faced, at best, the break-up of the United States and, at worst, the prospect of Civil War; and Cameron accepted Lincoln’s offer.

After his inauguration, on March 4,1861, Lincoln did not want the administration to appear on a war footing, as he still held some hope that no more than the initial seven states would attempt secession and that some peaceful resolution was possible rather than civil war. Cameron agreed with Lincoln’s cautious approach and, other than working with the aging and hobbled General Winfield Scott to re-build the Army manpower lost from defections and resignations by southerners, Cameron took little action to improve the status of the Army. Until April 15, 1861!

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the senior Generals still on duty, needed to quickly ramp up the Union army. In addition to more men, the U.S. Army would need more weapons, new facilities, uniforms, horses and mules, wagons, tents, and new roads and railroad tracks to move the men and equipment.  The War Department, led by Simon Cameron, devised an effective two-stage plan to rapidly build and equip the forces that would soon reach over 200,000 troops; an unprecedented scale! First, he looked to Northern state and local militias which already had trained and equipped units. He promised that the Federal government would fully repay the states and towns if they would send men and material from their militias to prepare for the defense of Washington DC and to defend critical railroad routes and telegraph lines.  At the federal level, Cameron coordinated with General-in-Chief, Winfield Scott, to expand the Army’s Quartermaster Corps and hired several hundred clerks at the War Department to process procurement orders. Almost all Quartermaster soldiers and civilian procurement clerks worked diligently and honorably to equip the new army. However, lurking in the background, were manufacturers, merchants, and traders who saw an opportunity and seized it. Some were aided by a few soldiers and government clerks who were in a position to steer lucrative contracts and did so for a bribe.

Soon, Cameron was being accused of offering contracts to those he knew, and he was an easy target for those charges. Cameron had called on other successful businessmen, capable of ramping up businesses to meet the Army’s various needs, to “pitch in for the good of the cause.” Reliance on acquaintances was not, in and of itself, unusual, as almost any leader expected to rapidly build something from nothing would put trust in those already known. But, Simon Cameron made, or allowed others to make, terrible procurement decisions; some of which were million-dollar mistakes. (When, as they say, a million dollars was real money!)

There are two truisms about war; some people will die and some people will get rich.

In the case of the Civil War, it did not take long for examples of corruption to become public. Some contract abuses were reported by competitors who did not win an army contract, some surfaced because an honest government clerk noticed an irregularity, and a few were discovered by reporters. But, by far, the most evidence of corruption came to light when the ultimate customer, those who served in the Army, received worthless products. Those included uniforms that fell apart, shoes with paper soles, old weapons marked as new, ammunition that did not match the weapons sent, spoiled food, and near-death horses and mules presented as healthy. Even products that met specifications were often outrageously overpriced.

Any large organization eventually reflects the moral code of its leader. The War Department needed structure and ethical boundaries; but Simon Cameron was incapable of providing either. He valued action over diligence, promptness over inspection, and loyalty over competence, especially when he was spending government money, or buying on government credit.  Critics pointed out, rightly so, that he did not amass his fortune by being so cavalier with his own money. And, Cameron did not satisfy anyone when he said, “I have the ability to make money, I do not need to steal it.” The fact is, he probably never did directly steal from the government, nor is there any evidence he personally accepted a bribe in return for steering contracts to acquaintances. But he often did fail to act decisively when an individual or company was caught over charging, (such as Colt Fire Arms), or providing less than that for which the government had paid, (such as J.P. Morgan’s Hall Carbines, which did not work, and Brooks Brothers, whose shoddy uniforms fell apart).

To some degree, Lincoln must share part of the blame. He had heard rumors of Cameron’s favoritism and poor management practices but chose to focus his own attention on actual war issues against the enemy and political issues in Washington, rather than the inefficiencies within the Army’s procurement processes. Lincoln may have rationalized that, in spite of the corruption, necessary supplies were being delivered at a record pace. But, by the end of 1861, congressional investigations into the mis-conduct within the War Department led Lincoln to consider replacing Cameron, before a public spectacle forced his hand.

However, Cameron instead presented Lincoln with an unexpected gift; a different politically incendiary reason to push him out of the Cabinet. Cameron usurped Presidential authority!

Without consulting Lincoln, Cameron sent to Congress his annual report which included a proposal to arm escaped slaves and Black Freedmen and to form them into special fighting units for use against southern forces.  The militarization of former slaves had previously been proposed by abolitionists, but Lincoln rejected it (at the time) because he was concerned the Union might lose the support of the four border states (Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri) where slavery was still legal. Lincoln had previously stopped Union Generals from arming slaves and told his Cabinet the time was not right for such a radical step. While Cameron had now given Lincoln a better reason to remove him, Lincoln knew that he needed to appease Cameron’s Pennsylvania voters and legislators and the abolitionists who supported the arming former slaves. So, Lincoln did what Presidents have always done, he offered Cameron another job – the Ambassadorship to Russia! Lincoln’s initial private termination letter to Cameron was terse and uncomplimentary; and Cameron was said to be devastated. Then, as Lincoln often did, he issued a second, softer, public letter which graciously claimed that he had accepted Cameron’s resignation with regret and that the Country would benefit from Cameron’s service in Russia. Lincoln’s second letter, for which Cameron would always be grateful, served to blunt some of, but not all of, the future criticism of Cameron’s brief tenure as Secretary of War.

Lincoln then reached out to an old antagonist, Edwin Stanton, who was a Democrat, a Washington Lawyer, and an outspoken Unionist. Stanton had already counseled Cameron on several occasions about procurement contracts, so, he was well aware of the corruption scandals being investigated by Congress. Lincoln and Stanton had crossed paths before, when, as a prominent eastern business attorney, Stanton had refused to work with Lincoln (at the time a country lawyer), humiliating Lincoln in the process. However, in typical Lincoln fashion, that episode did not deter him from offering Stanton the position in his Cabinet. Stanton still viewed Lincoln as an incompetent President; but, Stanton accepted the assignment as the new Secretary of War because, he told others, “It was best for the Country.” And it was! Over the next three years, Stanton led the War Department honorably and effectively; and, over time he came to appreciate and admire Abraham Lincoln as President.

Some historians find a conspiracy theory in Lincoln’s appointment of Stanton to be Secretary of War. At the time Lincoln selected Stanton, he was unaware that it was actually Stanton, as counselor to Cameron, who had written Cameron’s message to Congress which supported the arming of Black Freedmen and run-away slaves; the very document that had cost Cameron his job! While those historians speculate whether Lincoln, with that knowledge in hand, might have made a different choice; most historians agree that Stanton was the right person, at the right time, to end the chaos in the War Department.

But what of Cameron?

Cameron’s appointment as Ambassador to Russia was narrowly confirmed by the Senate. Then, Ambassador Cameron took such a long (and expensive) journey throughout Europe on his way to St. Petersburg, that he spent little time there on his diplomatic responsibilities. And, within months of arriving in Russia, Cameron presented Lincoln with another gift; he asked to be relieved of his mission. Lincoln would finally be rid of this nemesis.

Cameron resumed his business enterprises and again became a political force in Pennsylvania, returning to the U.S. Senate in 1867. He served in the Senate until 1877, and typical of Cameron’s self-dealing, he only resigned in a deal that assured his son would be appointed to his seat. And, for the rest of his life, Cameron claimed that, under the circumstances of a necessary rapid build-up of an army, he was successful as Secretary of War; and, he said, that Lincoln’s kind public statement, and the subsequent Union victory, proved his point.

But most historians view his tenure less favorably. He was disorganized to the extreme and did not follow up on early signs of corruption. Then, often, when contractors were caught bilking the Army and/or those were identified who aided their efforts by accepting bribes or favors, Cameron failed to act quickly to punish the culprits. But, despite congressional hearings about the rampant corruption within and around the War Department, Cameron was never personally charged with malfeasance. None of the investigations uncovered any evidence that Cameron personally accepted a bribe or diverted funds for his own use. The fact was that Simon Cameron benefited by trading in favors and patronage, rather than outright theft or graft.

So, does Simon Cameron deserve his poor reputation as Secretary of War? While he did equip a large army, his management oversight was lacking, his mistakes were many and expensive, and he never established clear moral and ethical boundaries within the War Department.

On the other hand, he was never caught stealing a hot stove.