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


by Paul Kahan

Lincoln: University of Nebraska / Potomac Books, 2016. Pp. xvi, 368. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $36.95. ISBN: 1612348149

Just How Crooked was Simon Cameron?

Dr. Kahan, author of The Bank War, on Andrew Jackson and the National Bank, and The Homestead Strike, among other works, takes on the life of Simon Cameron (1799-1889), who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War early in the Civil War, earning a reputation for crooked dealings.

Kahan finds Cameron far more interesting and far less corrupt than is commonly believed. He takes about half the book to examine Cameron’s origins and rise from poverty and obscurity to wealth and political prominence, doing a good job of sorting out some of the many now long forgotten political battles and corruption scandals of the past.

Kahan then deals with the far more important crisis generated by the election of 1860, during which Cameron supported Lincoln, which sparked secession and Civil War. Appointed Secretary of War by the new president, Cameron served until January of 1862. Kahan argues credibly that Cameron did better than is generally thought, considering the slender resources with which he had to work; he was, for example, one of only a handful of people who believed the war would a long one, and at the onset urged Lincoln to raise 500,000 volunteers, not the 75,000 that the President called for in the aftermath of Ft. Sumter.

In addressing Cameron’s alleged crookedness, Kahan finds him as much the victim of political imputation as of outright graft, though he was tainted, though hardly as crooked as some other leading politicians of the times, such his predecessor at the War Department, the secessionist sympathizing John B. Floyd. Kahan notes that Cameron was also a generous, forward thinking man.

Amiable Scoundrel will prove rewarding reading for those interested in the Civil War, American military mobilization, or the politics of the mid-nineteenth century.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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