central pennsylvania african american history for everyone
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Osler Family monument.The Witman Mausoleum. Harrisburg Cemetery
 African American
 History Perspectives

Tour stop 6: Simon Cameron
The Emancipation Question


Grave of Simon Cameron, which details his life's work.Simon Cameron (1799-1889)


ew  stories of political dynasties can rival the tale of Simon Cameron's hold on Pennsylvania politics, with his behind-the-scenes maneuverings and deals made literally in smoke-filled rooms.  Despite tales of corruption, political chicanery and outright graft, no one can deny that this man was for many years the most powerful and influential person in Pennsylvania politics.

Cameron's interest in politics developed through his interest in printing, which began at age 10 as a printer's apprentice.  While barely out of his teenage years he assumed the editorship of several small newspapers and in 1821 came to Harrisburg where he bought a small newspaper, the Harrisburg Republican, renamed it the Intelligencer, and began cultivating important political connections.

Newspapers in the eighteenth century were often little more than political organs for various parties or candidates.  While some existed only for the duration of a political campaign, established and financed by political party monies, most stayed in business longer and served their communities as legitimate newspapers, all the while endorsing a specific party or political movement.  Simon Cameron's career as editor soon led to his appointment as State Printer, and then Adjutant General of Pennsylvania.  He was twice elected to the U.S. Senate, first as a Democrat, and the second time with the backing of a coalition of Democratic, Republican, and American party legislators.  

Simon Cameron, engraving from from Frank Leslie's The American Soldier in the Civil War.In 1860 Cameron declared himself a Republican candidate for president and took an influential delegation to the party convention in Chicago.  There, after much political wrangling, Cameron threw his support behind Abraham Lincoln in return for the promise of a Cabinet position.  After election Lincoln withheld the post of Secretary of the Treasury, a post that Cameron, who counted banking among his many vocations, really wanted, and offered instead the appointment as Secretary of War.

It was during Simon Cameron's tenure as Secretary of War that he proposed that slaves freed by Union troops be immediately emancipated and used in the war effort, either as laborers or as armed troops.  From his December 1, 1861 Annual Report, Cameron writes:

It it shall be found that the men who have been held by the rebels as slaves are capable of bearing arms and performing efficient military service, it is the right, and may become the duty, of this Government to arm and equip them, and employ their services against the rebels, under proper military regulations, discipline and command.

But in whatever manner they may be used by the Government, it is plain that, once liberated by the rebellious act of their masters, they should never again be restored to bondage.  By the master's treason and rebellion he forfeits all right to the labor and service of his slave; and the slave of the rebellious master, by his service to the Government, becomes justly entitled to freedom and protection.

Unfortunately, Lincoln felt that the nation was not ready for emancipation and arming African Americans as soldiers, and censored Cameron's report, demanding the removal of the portions referring to emancipation and arming former slaves.  Cameron complied, but sent uncensored copies of the report to the newspapers, infuriating those members of the administration who opposed hard-line dealings with the southern states.  The resulting furor was one of several reasons that Lincoln replaced Cameron with Edwin Stanton, assigning the Pennsylvanian to the recently vacated post of Minister to Russia.

Cameron's advocacy of equal rights for African Americans went well beyond political expediency.  In the 1866 Pennsylvania gubernatorial race, during an atmosphere charged with racial tensions, Democrats named Cameron as one of several Republicans favoring Black suffrage, and called for all who opposed that issue to vote for the Democratic candidate.  Prior to that, in November 1865, Harrisburg welcomed the returning Pennsylvania African American regiments in a grand reception.  Speakers included Reverend Stephen Smith, T. Morris Chester, William Howard Day,  Jacob C. White, Jr., and Octavius V. Catto.  The entire reception made a special stop at the Cameron Mansion on Front Street (now the Harris-Cameron Mansion, home of the Historical Society of Dauphin County), and Simon Cameron came out to review the troops and address the procession, being the only white person asked to participate in the proceedings.  He said:

I cannot let this opportunity pass without thanking the African soldiers for the compliment they have paid me, but more than all to thank them for the great service which they have been to their country in the terrible rebellion.  I never doubted that the people of African descent would play a great part in this struggle, and am proud to say, that all my anticipations have been more than realized.  Your services, offered in the early part of the war, were refused; but when the struggle became one of life and death, then the country gladly received you, and, thank God, you nobly redeemed all you promised. (Applause.)

Like all other men, you have your destinies in your own hands, and if you continue to conduct yourselves hereafter as you have in this struggle, you will have all the rights you ask for, all the rights that belong to human beings. (Applause.)  I can only say again that I thank you, I thank you from my heart for all that you have done for your country, and I know the country will hold you in grateful remembrance.

The Cameron Family plot at the Harrisburg Cemetery.

It is interesting to note that Cameron's daughter Margaretta married Richard J. Haldeman, whose racist political rhetoric stands in stark contrast to Cameron's stated views.  In the 1880's, Cameron worked with Harrisburg author James H. W. Howard on a history of the United States Colored Troops, although it appears that work was never published.


"For the Burial of Such White People"
A Restricted Cemetery


For an older biography of Simon Cameron, 
Dauphin County Pennsylvania Transcription Project (2000-2002). Commemorative Biographical Encyclopedia of Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Retrieved November 9, 2002 from the World Wide Web:

Information about Cameron's political career is from Gerald G. Eggert's book Harrisburg Industrializes:  The Coming of Factories to an American Community (1993, The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, PA).

Specific information regarding Simon Cameron is in the book Walking Tour of Harrisburg Cemetery, 150th Anniversary Edition (1995, Harrisburg, PA).

Cameron's Annual Report, as Secretary of War, is online at  and is taken from Edward McPherson, The Political History of the United States of America, during the Great Rebellion (Washington, D.C., 1865), p. 294.

Cameron's address to the crowd at the reception of the returning Pennsylvania United States Colored Troops is from The Christian Recorder, November 18, 1865, and is online at Accessible Archives.

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This page was updated March 31, 2006.