Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Richard W. Thompson (1877–1880): Secretary of the Navy

Richard Wigginton Thompson was born in 1809 in Culpeper County, Virginia. He settled briefly in Kentucky before moving to Indiana, where he taught school, worked in a grocery store, and studied law at night.

Thompson was admitted to the Indiana bar in 1834, the same year he was elected to the Indiana state House of Representatives as a Whig. He served two one-year terms in the House before moving to the state senate, where he remained from 1836 to 1838. By 1840, Thompson had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and stayed for a single two-year term. He decided not to run again and returned to Indiana, where he resumed his law practice.

Thompson remained involved in politics, serving as the city attorney for Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1846 and again in 1847. He returned in 1847 to the U.S. Congress, where he served for two years in the House. Declining political appointments from Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, Thompson ultimately served as commander of Camp Thompson, Indiana, during the Civil War and as provost marshal for the district of Terre Haute from 1861 to 1865. He joined the Republican Party during that time, and it was as a Republican that he served as President Andrew Johnson’s appointment to the fifth Indiana Circuit Court. Thompson remained on the court from 1867 to 1869.

Seven years later, Thompson played a pivotal role in the 1876 election, suggesting that an electoral commission decide its outcome. Subsequently, the newly elected President Rutherford B. Hayes tapped Thompson to serve as his secretary of the Navy, a post Thompson held from 1877 to 1880, when Hayes named Thompson as the head of the American Committee of the French Panama Canal Project. After sitting on this committee, Thompson returned to Indiana, where he died in 1900.