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Ship Building 1877-81 - Hayes, Rutherford B.

Beneficiary of the most fiercely disputed election in American history, Rutherford B. Hayes brought to the Executive Mansion dignity, honesty, and moderate reform. Safe liberalism, party loyalty, and a good war record made Hayes an acceptable Republican candidate in 1876. He opposed Governor Samuel J. Tilden of New York. Although a galaxy of famous Republican speakers, and even Mark Twain, stumped for Hayes, he expected the Democrats to win. Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden won the popular vote for president on 07 November 1876 by a 250,000-vote margin.

With the country still reeling from the Civil War and the election cutting to the heart of continuing sectional conflict, a peaceful resolution was crucial. Southern Democrats in Congress were dealing with Hayes' lieutenants, suggesting a basis of compromise. If Hayes would withdraw federal troops where they remained in the south -- South Carolina and Louisiana -- they would support the selection of Hayes as President. Congress declared Hayes the victor on 02 March 1877, just two days before his term began.

Hayes pledged protection of the rights of Negroes in the South, but at the same time advocated the restoration of "wise, honest, and peaceful local self-government." This meant the withdrawal of troops. Hayes hoped such conciliatory policies would lead to the building of a "new Republican party" in the South, to which white businessmen and conservatives would rally. Many of the leaders of the new South did indeed favor Republican economic policies and approved of Hayes's financial conservatism, but they faced annihilation at the polls if they were to join the party of Reconstruction. Hayes and his Republican successors were persistent in their efforts but could not win over the "solid South."

Hayes' power was sapped not only by the circumstances of his election and charges of his participation in the "bargain," but also by his pledge, made in advance of his election, to serve only one term. Because of his determination not to relinquish to Congress any of his prerogatives, he clashed repeatedly with members of his own divided party on appointment matters and with the resurgent Democrats on Presidential authority to deploy Federal troops in supervision of elections. The Democrats, during the first half of his term, controlled the lower House of Congress; during the last half, both Houses.

In spite of international crises such as the Virginius Affair, contention with Great Britain over the Alabama Claims, and problems with France over a projected canal in Panama, the strength of the Navy continued to decline. By 1879, only 48 of the Navy's 142 vessels were available for immediate service, and these were obsolete wooden or old ironclad ships. Naval technology had stagnated in the United States, illustrated by the fact that there was not a single high-power, long-range rifled gun in the entire fleet.

Richard W. Thompson, an elderly Terre Haute lawyer known as the "grand old man" of Indiana politics, served Rutherford B. Hayes as Secretary of the Navy. The career of Richard W. Thompson, minor Indiana politician who was famed in his region as an orator and who served the Whig and Republican parties in routine fashion, had more length than distinction. Thompson had played a pivotal role in the 1876 election, suggesting that an electoral commission decide its outcome.

Richard Wigginton Thompson - born on 9 June 1809 in Culpepper County, Va.-left Virginia in 1831; lived briefly in Louisville, Kentucky; and, later that year, settled in Lawrence County, Ind. There, he taught school, kept a store, and studied law at night. Admitted to the Bar in 1834, he practiced law in Bedford, Ind., and served for four terms in the Indiana Legislature from 1834 to 1838. He served as President Pro Tempore of the Indiana Senate for a short time and briefly held the office of Acting Lieutenant Governor. In the Presidential Election of 1840, he zealously advocated the election of William Henry Harrison. Thompson then represented Indiana in the United States Congress, serving in the House of Representatives from 1841 to 1843 and again from 1847 to 1849. Following the Civil War, Thompson served as judge of the 18th Circuit Court of the state of Indiana from 1867 to 1869.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him Secretary of the Navy. A lack of naval training at that time was not thought a serious handicap to the cabinet officer, because the navy was small and not particularly active. Nonetheless, the secretary was said to have taken his duties seriously and filled the post with greater success than his past experiences as an administrator would have indicated. On the whole he was an active and loyal supporter of the administration's policies.

Upon visiting a navy yard and inspecting a ship he is said to have noted, "Why, the durned thing's hollow." This might have been an apocryphal story. He held that office until his resignation December 21, 1880.

Thompson was tempted by an offer tendered by Ferdinand de Lesseps to become chairman of the American committee of the proposed Panama Canal, at a salary of $25,000 yearly. Somehow Thompson could not quite resist the offer and accepted while still in his cabinet post, but he resigned immediately thereafter. Hayes named Thompson as the head of the American Committee of the French Panama Canal Project in 1881; afterwards he was director of the Panama Railroad Co. 1881-1888. After sitting on this committee, Thompson returned to Indiana, where he died in 1900.

"By the year 1880 the navy had fallen to a pitifully low ebb," noted Frank M. Bennett, the historian of the nineteenth-century American steam navy. "Repairs were no longer possible, for space for more patches was lacking upon almost every ship of ours then afloat.. A sense of humiliation dogged the American naval officer as he went about his duty in foreign lands; in the Far East, in the lesser countries along the Mediterranean Sea, and even in the sea ports of South America, people smiled patronizingly upon him and from a sense of politeness avoided speaking of naval subjects in his presence."

In an Oscar Wilde comedy written at the time, an American lady who despaired of her country because it had neither curiosities nor ruins was consoled with heavy irony because "you have your manners and your navy."

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:52:26 ZULU