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The Election Case of Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania (1857)

Image of Simon Cameron

Election irregularities; electoral misconduct.

Petition received: Mar. 6, 1857
Referred to committee: Mar. 9, 1857
Committee report: Mar. 11, 1857
Senate vote: Mar. 13, 1857

Result: Seated

Starting as a newspaperman, Simon Cameron became wealthy by engaging in a variety of businesses, including railroad construction, banking, and insurance. He was also politically active and influential, although his tactics often provoked criticism. When serving as a commissioner for the Winnebago Indians, for example, Cameron gained notoriety by adjusting their claims through notes paid on his own bank. Despite such scandals, the Pennsylvania legislature in 1845 elected Cameron to fill the Senate vacancy created by the resignation of Democrat James Buchanan. Defeated for reelection in 1848, Cameron abandoned the Democrats in 1854, and in 1856 the state legislature returned him to the Senate as a Republican.

Statement of the Case
Cameron's controversial past and his separation from the Democrats guaranteed a challenge to his election. On March 6, 1857, two days after Cameron took his oath, sixty-nine members of the Pennsylvania legislature requested a Senate investigation. They based their protest upon charges that a majority of each branch of the state legislature did not favor Cameron's election, that the state senate failed to meet statutory requirements, and that "corrupt and unlawful means" had been used to influence votes in his favor.

Response of the Senate
On March 9, 1857, Cameron asked that the petition from the Pennsylvania legislature be sent to the Judiciary Committee. After two days of inquiry, the committee reported that it saw no need to consider the matter further.

The committee found that the full state legislature had assembled for the senatorial election and that Cameron received a majority vote. An investigation into the statutory protest showed that the appointment of the state senate's teller occurred on the day of the election, instead of one day previously as directed by state law. The committee considered this procedural violation to be so minor that it in no way invalidated the election. The committee dismissed as vague the charges of corruption in Cameron's selection.

Committee member George E. Pugh (Democrat-OH) in a minority report attacked his colleagues for refusing to investigate allegations of corruption submitted by a responsible source, an insinuation that brought a swift denial from others on the Judiciary Committee. Chairman Andrew P. Butler (Democrat-SC) insisted that the appropriate arena for settling the dispute lay not with the United States Senate, but with the state. He defended the committee's judgment, saying, "Let the members who have been charged with corruption be tried by their peers. It would be . . . unsafe . . . for us to send out a roving commission. . . . I am a State-rights man; and I say that the vicinage try the man, and when they . . . bring out the evidence, I will . . . expel the member."

Cameron expressed amazement at the entire episode, assuring the Senate that in Pennsylvania the protest was regarded "as a mere piece of humbug."  Senators chuckled in amusement when Cameron remarked that several petitioners confided they had only signed to avoid offending Pennsylvania officials who had the power to make political appointments. Cameron declared, "I come here to add to my fame, to my character, to my reputation. . . ; and that cannot be done by money."  Chairman Butler reiterated that it was up to the Pennsylvania legislature, rather than the U.S. Senate, to determine whether corruption had been involved in Cameron's election. Apparently the Senate agreed. On March 13, 1857, the members voted to discharge the Judiciary Committee from any further consideration of Cameron's right to his seat.

Simon Cameron served in the Senate until 1861, when he resigned to become secretary of war, but his questionable management of war contracts led the House of Representatives to censure him. In 1862, Cameron served briefly as minister to Russia, and in 1867 he was again elected to the United States Senate, remaining there until 1877. Adroit in behind-the-scenes political manipulation, Cameron built a powerful Republican machine in Pennsylvania that he passed along to his son, who succeeded him in the Senate. Cameron died in Pennsylvania in 1889.

Source: Adapted from Anne M. Butler and Wendy Wolff. United States Senate Election, Expulsion, and Censure Cases, 1793-1990. S. Doc. 103-33. Washington, GPO, 1995.

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