Richard W. Thompson | “The Admiral of the Wabash”

Indiana’s own Richard Wigginton Thompson, former Secretary of the Navy, was an emblematic product of American corruption during the Gilded Age. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of failing upward; despite being clearly incapable of serving as Naval Secretary, he continued to rise through the ranks of the political establishment. In effect, his story is but one, small part of a larger story about how government is not always staffed by the “best and brightest,” but rather its exact opposite.

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Episode 4 | Richard W. Thompson: “The Admiral of the Wabash”

Political scheming is as American as apple pie. From the Whiskey Ring and Teapot Dome to Watergate and our own contemporary problems, political leaders have taken advantage of their positions of power to enrich themselves and claim power. Now, I don’t want to come off as too much of a Mr. Smith, but I do think it’s important to contextualize this illicit history of our country with an example from our own backyard. Indiana’s own Richard Wigginton Thompson, former Secretary of the Navy, was just such a product of American corruption during the Gilded Age. In many ways, he was the living embodiment of failing upward; despite being clearly incapable of serving as Naval Secretary, he continued to rise through the ranks of the political establishment. In effect, his story is but one, small part of a larger story about how government is not always staffed by the “best and brightest,” but rather its exact opposite.

Thompson was a Republican Party insider who began his career in local Indiana politics. As the Elk County Advocate reported, Thompson was born in Virginia in 1809 and, like so many Hoosier politicians of the nineteenth century, later moved to Kentucky and then Indiana. Admitted to the Indiana bar in 1834, he quickly began a political career in the General Assembly, serving in the House and the Senate. He then moved on to national politics, serving in Congress and as a presidential elector for both the Whig party and the newly-formed Republican party. A gifted electioneer and dedicated partisan for Senator Oliver Morton’s 1876 presidential bid, Thompson later embraced the candidacy of Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes’ election was one of the most contested in US history; he didn’t win the popular vote but won the Electoral College after a specially-created Congressional commission ruled in favor of the Republican.

Thompson’s loyalty to Hayes was rewarded almost immediately. On March 13, 1877, he assumed the position of the important cabinet position of Secretary of the Navy . . . despite the fact that he never served in the Navy. The newspapers rightly pointed out this problem. In speculating on Thompson’s appointment, Thompson’s hometown paper, the Terre Haute Weekly Gazette, quipped that Thompson told President Hayes “he presumed he owed his appointment to the recognition by the President of the necessity of establishing a first-class navy yard at Terre Haute.” Newspapers also ran clever poems showing Thompson’s lack of experience. As one in the Indiana State Sentinel read:

My name is Richard Thompson, Old Dick.” I’m called for short;

I never saw a mainsail reefed, Nor in a gale was caught.

I’ve spent a quiet life Upon the Wabash shore,

Where for years I saw the breakers, And heard their awful roar.

So take my advice and never go to sea.

And you’re likely to be ruler of old Hayes’s navee [sic].

The newspapers soon mockingly nicknamed him the “Admiral of the Wabash.” A story, likely apocryphal, circulated that when Thompson toured his first naval vessel he exclaimed, “Why the durned thing’s hollow!”

Confirming the newspapers’ woes, he wasn’t the most adept cabinet member. His time at the Naval Department was largely inconsequential. His only major policy initiative was advising a mission of the USS Jeanette to the North Pole in 1879. When the expedition failed and led to the deaths of the some of the crew, Thompson’s cagey response to help the crew proved to be rather unappreciated. While he did oversee some modernization efforts of the Navy, it was the undersecretaries who did most of the heavy-lifting.

But none of this mattered in the winter of 1880, when Thompson unceremoniously resigned as Secretary of the Navy for a $25,000 a year salary to serve as chairman of the new Panama Canal Company, under the corporate aegis of the firm’s “American committee.” His departure from the Hayes cabinet caused quite a stir in the political world. President Hayes firmly believed that if the Panama Canal was to be built, it should be exclusively controlled by the Americans. Yet, the Panama Canal Company was a French venture with other international investors. This put Thompson’s interest in the company at odds with the President. When this came to light, Thompson promptly resigned.

Over the next eight years, the Panama Canal Company received multiple congressional investigations into these discrepancies, of which Thompson became a subject. After years of mismanagement and complications, the company collapsed in 1889, having spent “nearly four hundred million dollars . . . and [with] scarcely two-fifths of the work completed.” Of this huge price tag, $2.4 million can be attributed to Thompson’s management of the “American Committee,” the Indiana State Sentinel reported. Even though congressional investigations never indicated any direct wrongdoing, Thompson’s equally unceremonious resignation from the company in 1888 didn’t ease people’s concerns.

In all, Richard Thompson wasn’t necessarily a bad guy, but rather a component of a larger problem within nineteenth century politics. Political favoritism, incompetence, graft, corporate scheming, and indiscretion exemplified the kind of environment that Thompson both emerged out of and thrived in. Additionally, the guy was not equipped for the job of Secretary of the Navy. An editorial in the New York Sun noted that, “As a ruler of the navy, the Hon. Dick Thompson has conspicuously failed.” His time with the Panama Canal Company proved equally disastrous, so much so that he also resigned. So while our modern worries about inept and unethical leaders are certainly warranted, the story of the “Admiral of the Wabash” reminds us that American political shenanigans are much older that we initially imagine.