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

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Michael J. Birkner


In his ninety years Simon Cameron made a lot of money, cut innumerable political deals, helped many people, lent and lost thousands of dollars, won and lost elections, and earned an indelible reputation as a consummate wirepuller. Almost from the beginning of his public life he was tainted by the aura of corruption, though the corruption was never proved. A long-serving US senator from Pennsylvania, he is best known as an incompetent and possibly corrupt secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet. In this first comprehensive biography of Cameron in half a century, Paul Kahan describes a glad-hander who by dint of craftiness and persistence gained access to power at the highest levels and held a series of significant posts in business and government. For all the good information provided in this compact, accessible work, and its subject’s impressive resumé, it remains unclear at the end what Cameron’s substantive accomplishment entailed beyond voting in the US Senate for the Fifteenth Amendment (giving former slaves the right to vote) and helping Mary Todd Lincoln secure a federal pension.

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