Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War.

Author:Talbert, Bart
Position:Book review
 
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Kahan, Paul. Amiable Scoundrel: Simon Cameron, Lincoln's Scandalous Secretary of War. Lincoln: Potomac Press, 2016. xxiv + 367 pages. Hardcover, $55.50.

Paul Kahan, a lecturer at Ohlone College, provides more than a biography of Simon Cameron, Pennsylvania political boss and Lincoln's first Secretary of War. His work also uncovers the political machines and the "spoils system" so prevalent in American politics during much of the nineteenth century. Kahan wants to "get past Cameron's reputation" (p.1) as an unscrupulous political manipulator and put his unprincipled actions "into a larger historical context." (p.4) He also attempts to prove that, in spite of Cameron's own words and the findings of many historians, the Senator had "rather progressive attitudes on race." (p.3) The author draws on Pennsylvania and United States government documents and a wide array of the correspondence between the principle players of the period, including Andrew Jackson, Clay, Polk, Buchanan, and Lincoln. He relies heavily on secondary works like Potter's The Impending Crisis, Nevins's The Emergence of Lincoln, Sandberg's Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Meneely's The War Department, and especially the Crippin (1942) and Bradley (1966) biographies of Cameron.

Cameron, born in 1799, is portrayed as a good family man, but also someone who "loaned" politicians money in return for special legislation and used his position of public trust to punish anyone who opposed him. The early successes of this newspaperman, banker, and industrialist in the politically-seedy but pivotal state of Pennsylvania made him an important national figure by his early thirties. Originally an anti-abolitionist Democrat, Cameron moved away from Jackson and Van Buren when they, in his opinion, failed to support him against charges of corruption. By the mid-1840s he had jumped to Pennsylvania's Whigs and Nativists and was rewarded with a seat in the United States Senate. Pennsylvania's Democrats, who viewed him as a traitor, ultimately forced Cameron out of the Senate in 1849, but the political upheaval of 1850s saw him return to that body in 1856 as the moderate head of Pennsylvania's new Republican Party. Kahan details how this return was marred by renewed accusations of bribery for votes, which combined with earlier controversies, left "a lasting odor of corruption that became impossible for him to shake"(p.118). This odor probably prevented him from becoming Lincoln's running mate and...

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