Although best remembered as the rather ineffectual Pennsylvania political boss who succeeded his father Simon Cameron as United States Senator, Donald Cameron probably played the key political role in deciding who would become president of the United States in 1876 and 1880.
Born in Middletown, Pennsylvania, in 1833, Cameron graduated from the College of New Jersey (today's Princeton University) in 1852, then worked his way up to the presidency of the Bank of Middletown, which had been founded by his father. During the Civil War, Cameron supervised the transportation of Union troops over the Northern Central Railroad, another of his father's enterprises, and after the war served as a faithful subordinate in his father's diverse business and political affairs. After his father's reelection to the United States Senate in 1857, Cameron served as his principal lieutenant in managing the Pennsylvania state legislature.
In 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Cameron Secretary of War, again, thanks to his father's influence, and in that role Donald did his best to ensure that Union soldiers in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina - the only three states still under federal jurisdiction - protected southern Republicans. These were African Americans, northerners who had gone South after the Civil War, and southerners who had come to terms with the right of blacks to vote and hold office, all of whom faced the vigilante violence of Democrats trying to take control of those states during the presidential election of 1876.
When two slates of electors both claimed to represent these states, Congress set up a bipartisan commission to resolve the outcome of the election. Supreme Court Justice William Strong of Pennsylvania joined those whose votes then gave the presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes. Once in office, Hayes promptly replaced Cameron as Secretary of War. In response, Donald's father resigned from the United States Senate. The very next day, the Pennsylvania legislature elected Donald to replace him.
Upon his father's retirement in 1877, Cameron became the new boss of the Pennsylvania Republican Party. Two years later he became chair of the Republican national committee. In 1880 Cameron controlled the Pennsylvania delegation to the Republican convention. When his efforts to nominate former President Grant for a third term failed, he threw the Pennsylvania delegation behind James Garfield, which prevented the nomination of front-runner Senator James G. Blaine of Maine (who also was born in Pennsylvania).
During his twenty years in the Senate, Cameron was an effective party loyalist and organizer, but a poor leader. He did not like the extensive personal networking, letter writing, and speechmaking that had been crucial to his father's power. In 1882, the Pennsylvania Republican Party experienced its first significant fracture, when about 40,000 Liberal Republicans -termed "Half Breeds" by the machine - voted for an independent candidate, almost exactly the margin by which Robert Pattison defeated General James Beaver to become Pennsylvania's only Democrat governor between 1861 and 1935. Sometime in the mid-1880s, Cameron turned the Republican state machine over to State Treasurer Matthew Quay, who relished wheeling and dealing much like the elder Cameron.
In the Senate, Cameron rarely introduced bills or spoke. He did, however, work to protect Pennsylvania industry by keeping tariffs high, and to protect himself by keeping up the price of silver, in which he had invested heavily. Although he kept his Senate seat until 1897, he spent more and more time traveling and socializing, activities he continued for the remainder of his life. His second wife, Elizabeth Sherman, a niece of General William Tecumseh Sherman, was a famous Washington hostess who attracted the nation's leading figures to their house.
Although Donald was a disappointment to his father, who had hoped to establish a political dynasty, he was typical of the late-nineteenth-century politicians who achieved office through service to the party machine and the business interests that supported it. In his later years, Cameron lived on his Lancaster farm. Like his father, he lived a long life, dying at the age of eighty-five on August 30, 1918.