Born in 1799 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Simon Cameron entered politics by way of journalism. During the early 1820s, his family's financial misfortunes forced Cameron to work in printing and editing, an occupation that was closely tied to politics. During this period, he worked briefly in Washington, D.C., for the congressional printers, where he learned about national politics and established important political connections. Around 1824, he returned to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to run the Republican, and was soon exerting considerable influence in state and national politics.
Ambitious and materialistic, Cameron soon abandoned newspaper editing, and turned to schemes that were more lucrative. He especially sought out opportunities in the areas of internal improvements and banking. Among other enterprises, he set up a bank, entered the fields of canal and railroad construction, and engaged in the iron and insurance businesses. He soon amassed a fortune.
Cameron remained intensely involved in politics as a Jacksonian Democrat. During the 1830s, he was a leading supporter of Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. His loyalty was rewarded in 1838, with his selection as commissioner to settle certain claims of the Winnebago Indians. This appointment ended in scandal when he used his own bank's notes as part of the adjustment. He became derisively known as "The Great Winnebago Chief," and for a time, his political influence dimmed.
During the mid-1840s, however, Cameron's political prospects grew more encouraging. A firm believer in tariff protection, he led a coalition of protectionist Democrats, Whigs, and other groups to victory over the regular Democratic party's candidate, sending Cameron to the United States Senate in 1845. Although he failed to be re-elected, the political disruptions of the mid-1850s over slavery moved Cameron into the Republican Party. In 1857, he returned to the Senate as a Republican. He remained in that party for the rest of his career, and was largely responsible for making the Pennsylvania's Republican organization an efficient political machine. Although occasionally challenged and even defeated, Cameron remained in control of the party.
At the 1860 Republican national convention, Cameron's followers threw their support to Lincoln in an agreement with Lincoln's managers by which Cameron was promised a cabinet post. Despite Cameron's controversial career and tarnished reputation, Lincoln carried through on the arrangement and appointed him secretary of war. Unfortunately, Cameron's considerable financial and administrative abilities proved inadequate, and his reign in the War Department was associated with corruption and political favoritism. In 1862, Lincoln eased him out of the cabinet and appointed him as minister to Russia.
After the Civil War, Cameron reestablished his position in Pennsylvania politics, and returned to the Senate in 1867. He later became a power in the Grant administration, but in the 1870s, he stepped down from his Senate seat and turned over leadership of the Pennsylvania Republican Party to his son. He retired to his Pennsylvania farm until his death at the age of ninety-one in 1889.