Biography of Jacob Thompson

North Carolina has contributed much to the history of other States. Many of our promising youths have gone to add their lives and talents to increasing the honor rolls of other sections of the Union. Upon all such she looks with pride and pleasure. But she is not willing that all the honor coming from such lives be claimed by the States of their adoption. It is a circumstance of no small consideration for one to have been a true, native North Carolinian. There is a solidity and strength of character in the general tenor of our good old State that will make itself felt wherever you find it. The mother takes some credit to herself for the achievements of her sons.

One life we should not fail to lay great claims to is that of Jacob Thompson, a native North Carolinian, who gave his life work to the State of Mississippi. He served twelve years as Congressman from that State during one of the most trying periods of the Nation’s history, and filled the office of Secretary of Interior in the cabinet of James Buchanan. He was one of the strongest men of his time and exerted a powerful influence in the Nation’s capital in the days when Webster, Clay, and Calhoun were crossing swords in the Senatorial arena. His life is worth considering.

He was born in the beautiful little village of Leasburg, in Caswell County, North Carolina, in 1810. His father was Nicholas Thompson, who moved from Orange County and settled in Leasburg about 1801. He was of Scottish descent, and inherited much of the energy and fortitude inherent in the people of the land of Bruce and Wallace. He accumulated a large fortune by farming, tanning leather, and harness making. He was thoroughly honest and upright .in all his dealings. It is a fact worthy of notice, that in tracing the ancestors of Jacob Thompson back for several generations, we find them remarkable for their integrity and fidelity to principle.

The wife of Nicholas Thompson was Lucretia Vanhook, daughter of Jacob Vanhook, a Revolutionary soldier, and a man of considerable influence. Eight children were the result of this union, six boys and two girls. The boys’ names were, Joseph Sidney, James Young, Jacob, John, William, and George Nicholas; the girls were Ann and Sarah. Of this number, only two are now living,—William Thompson, an influential lawyer of Oxford, Mississippi, and Mrs. Sarah M. Lewis, of College Hall, in the same State. Joseph Sidney, the eldest, was for some time a successful merchant of Leasburg. He died several years ago. James Young, and John were both prominent physicians of Mississippi. Ann became the wife of Yancey Wiley, a nephew of Bartlett Yancey, Caswell’s distinguished statesman. These two, Mr. and Mrs. Wiley, also made Mississippi their home. The youngest son, George Nicholas, became a lawyer, settled in Leasburg, and rose to be a leader in the politics of Caswell County.

The subject of this sketch early showed the qualities that added so much to his name in after life. He was a bright, energetic, industrious boy, noted for his remarkable will power. He was prepared for college at the Hawfield school in Orange County, and he entered the University of North Carolina in his seventeenth year. He graduated in 1831, and received the first honors of his class. On the day of his graduation he was appointed one of the tutors of the college. While in college he was converted and for some time thought seriously of entering the active ministry of the M. R. Church, South. Finally, however, be decided to be a lawyer, and after eighteen months’ efficient work as a teacher, he resigned his position and began the study of law under judge John M. Dick, of Greensboro. In eighteen months he received license to practice in the Inferior Courts of the State, and in 1835 he was admitted attorney and counsellor-at-law in the Superior Courts of the State.

At this time Mississippi, with its vast, undeveloped resources, was a tempting field for strong, ambitious young manhood. Thompson was attracted by it and soon left his native State for this rapidly advancing section of the Great Valley. At the advice of his brother he settled at Pontotoc. The Chickasaw Indians had just ceded the beautiful section around Pontotoc to the government. Owing to the conveyance of lands a great deal of business was required of lawyers in that section. Young Thompson threw all his tireless, well-equipped force into the work, and soon rose in popularity and influence. He made money fast.

But his friends would not let him keep out of politics. The community soon became divided on the question as to whether the State should endorse the Union Bank bonds for $5,000,000 or not. The first political speech ever made by Mr. Thompson was at a meeting held at Pontotoc for the purpose of favoring that policy and instructing the representatives in the Legislature to vote for the endorsement. Thompson opposed the resolution in a strong and able speech, which attracted attention throughout the State. He denounced the banking mania which was running riot over Mississippi, and predicted that the sequence would be overwhelming ruin and universal bankruptcy. The resolutions were adopted, however, but in a short time the whole State had serious cause to regret that Thompson’s warning had not been heeded.

After this he was pressed into political service. In 1837 he was nominated candidate for the Attorney-Generalship of his State on the Democratic ticket. He was defeated by a small majority, but in all sections where be was known he received an almost unanimous vote. About this time banks were suspended all over the Nation and the Democratic Party seemed to fall into despair, especially in Mississippi.

Under those circumstances Thompson was nominated for Congress in 1839. He was quite young for such a position, but he made an exceptionally strong canvass and was elected by a handsome majority. For twelve successive years he served his State in this capacity, doing valuable work for Mississippi and for the country at large.

His talents and good qualities were recognized soon after he took his seat. In 1841 his second nomination for Congress was made. About that time the Union Bank became utterly bankrupt. The bonds of the Bank which the State had endorsed, and on which the Bank had raised capital to run its career, had been dishonored and the State was called upon to renew its endorsement. The Governor had refused payment on the ground that the State was not legally or morally bound, and an appeal was made to the people. Mr. Thompson was called upon for his views. He supported the Governor in his refusal in a letter setting forth the position so clearly that his views were accepted by the people and were adopted by the Legislature of the State. During the ensuing session of Congress offensive allusion was made on the floor of the House to Mississippi’s action in the matter. Mr. Thompson, without any previous preparation, championed the cause of his State in a strong, masterful effort that put a stop to all sneers. This speech is before me and I find it interesting and full of sound reasoning. I cannot give a fair synopsis of it, and will not attempt it. It is the voice of a true statesman and of a great man. Among other things Mr. Thompson condemns the idea of a State or Nation contracting a debt by issuing bonds for loans. He holds that in times of peace no government should contract a permanent debt. He did not believe in giving capitalists and brokers a hold on the Treasury of State or Nation. He also made an eloquent defense of Mississippi’s action in not sustaining the bonds. I should like to quote passages of this address, but space is not sufficient.

When the convention of 1844 met, the question of the annexation of Texas was the most prominent issue. As is well known, Henry Clay, on account of his honest opposition to annexation, failed to get the nomination, and James K. Polk was nominated. Jacob Thompson did much toward securing this nomination. He aided Robt. J. Walker in writing the celebrated letter, which made annexation the issue of the campaign. When Polk was elected he informed Walker that he could not offer him any cabinet position, except that of Attorney General. Walker wanted a higher place and appealed to Thompson to use his influence toward getting it for him, Thompson influenced Polk to make Walker Secretary of the Treasury. When Walker heard of it, he exclaimed: “Oh, Thompson, you are my best friend! Your zeal and firmness have saved me. I can never, never forget you.” I will mention in passing that Walker proved to be an unprincipled office-seeker and basely ungrateful to Thompson.

When the Mississippi Democratic Convention met in 1851, Mr. Thompson requested them to nominate some other man for Congress. He had for sometime been desirous of retiring to private life and spending the remainder of his days among the quiet and peaceful scenes of his charming home. But when the convention looked for a candidate to fill his place, no agreement could be made, and Thompson was petitioned to become a candidate again. He at last consented. In this election, he was defeated on account of the weakness of his colleagues. He attempted to carry the whole district for his party and lost his own election.

For some time he had been regarded as one of the Father’s of the House. His opinions were eagerly sought by his associates. I quote the following estimate from one well acquainted with his character: “Cautious and deliberate in taking all positions on all new issues, pet firm and resolute in maintaining them, he was ever consistent and became a leader on whom the most implicit reliance could be placed. Always prudent, yet firm and determined, sure of his position and well able to defend it, no constituency was ever served with more fidelity, honesty and efficiency, and none ever trusted a representative with more constancy and confidence.” He was often weighed in the balance but never found wanting. In 1852, Mr. Thompson became a delegate to the Baltimore convention and contributed as much, and perhaps more than any other one of its members, to the nomination of Franklin Pierce for the Presidency. After the election, President Pierce tendered Mr. Thompson the Consulship to Cuba but he respectfully declined the honor.

Soon after this, Mr. Thompson was strongly considered for the Senatorship from Mississippi, though Col. Jeff. Davis was finally selected.

In 1856, Mr. Thompson supported James Buchanan in the Presidential Convention. After the election, he was invited to take charge of the Department of the Interior in Mr. Buchanan’s Cabinet. This he accepted and entered on his duties March, 1857- He found the Department a mere aggregation of bureaus, working entirely without concert, and the Secretary a mere figure head. With his old time energy, he went to work and infused new life into every department united all the business under one head, himself the director. The department grew in favor and popularity with the whole country. The business transacted by it was enormous. The volumes of the decisions of Secretary Thompson in law cases alone were larger than those of the Attorney General.

During this administration, the treachery of one of the clerks of the Department of the Interior caused much adverse and very unjust criticism of the worthy Secretary. An investigation was made by Mr. Thompson’s political opponents to find out the truth and it was soon found that he was innocent of any of the charges his enemies had heaped upon him.

When the Civil War had broke out, Mr. Thompson volunteered his services. He went into active service and held several important positions during his stay in the army. He gave valuable assistance to General Pemberton around Vicksburg. He retired in 1863 to serve in the Legislature of his State.

Soon, however, there came a telegram from President Davis, calling him to Richmond. The President had heard that several thousands of people in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, were weary of the war and were ready to take up arms and demand of the United States Government a cessation of hostilities. The Confederate Congress had voted an appropriation toward arming these people, and directed President Davis to send one of our most discreet and reliable citizens to Canada, to confer with those who sympathized with the Confederacy and were willing to aid in bringing the war to a close. This was a secret mission and one liable to subject the ambassador to slander and misrepresentation by the unscrupulous. Mr. Thompson hesitated before accepting it. But he felt it his duty to serve his country in any honorable way possible, and finally accepted. Accompanied by C. C. Clay and W. W. Clery, he ran the blockade at Wilmington, N. C., and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia; from thence he went to a point south-west of Montreal where he could confer with the people of the States mentioned above. His experience here read like a romance. Nothing of value however could be accomplished and he ordered the escaped Confederates under his charge to return home. These were panting for revenge, and, going contrary to Thompson’s order, made a raid on the town of St. Albans, in Vermont. For this deed committed by a band of unruly, revengeful prisoners, Mr. Thompson was called an incendiary by the press of the time. He made no defense whatever, but waited for time to reveal the right. He was soon cleared of all such base accusations.

While Thompson was on his way to Halifax from Montreal, President Lincoln was assassinated. Then one of the most unpardonable plots was conceived by certain authorities in Washington City. They decided to charge the President of the Confederacy and his commissioners in Canada with deliberately planning this terrible crime. Perjured testimony was obtained by bribery. A proclamation was issued offering a large reward for the arrest of Jefferson Davis, Jacob Thompson, Clement C. Clay, and others. A friend told me recently that he saw a copy of a telegram in the Historical Collection of the Johns Hopkins University, which reads: “Arrest Jacob Thompson.” This tells the tale.

When Thompson heard of this his first impression was to present himself at Washington City, and demand a trial. His friends, fearing that justice would not be done him by the authorities in power, persuaded him not to do this.

Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Thompson had served in Congress together and had formed there a true and lasting friendship. Each admired and respected the manly qualities of the other. Thompson recognized in Lincoln a real friend and not an enemy of the Southland, and instead of rejoicing at the assassination of the President, he mourned it as a public calamity and a private sorrow. Only a short while before the assassination, Thompson had been recognized by some Federal authorities in Portland, Maine, where he was seeking a vessel on which to escape from the country. The Secretary of War was about to issue an order for his arrest, Mr. Lincoln hearing of this, only a few hours before his assassination, suspended the issuing of the order and expressed a wish that Thompson be allowed to leave the country unmolested. This shows the relations existing between them. It is needless to add that subsequent history has obliterated the envious calumny.

Mr. Thompson and his family soon sailed for Europe where they spent several years before returning to their homes in Oxford, Miss.

Soon after going to Mississippi he had been married to Miss Catharine Jones, the only daugher of Paton Jones, a very wealthy and prominent man. Mrs. Thompson was a lovely woman, possessing fine taste and judgment. She was a favorite of society in Washington, and made the home of her husband the favorite resort of Senators and Representatives. Between her and her husband the utmost harmony and confidence existed.

Their only- son, Caswell Macon, married a Miss Fox, and died leaving a widow and two little girls to be cared for by his parents. One of these grandchildren is Mrs. Van Leer Kirkman, the beautiful and accomplished Lady Manager of Nashville Exposition of 1897. Her picture appeared in Munsey’s Magazine, a few months ago.

In private as well as public life, Jacob Thompson bore himself as a man of high character. One says of him: “He was a dear, good plan, an excellent friend, sympathetic in nature, kind and generous. In manner dignified, commanding respect. He was remarkable in being never overhearing to inferiors.” He was a very successful businessman, and managed a large plantation with large profit to himself. He often loaned money but never charged interest. He did not believe in charging interest.

I will close as I began, that North Carolina will do well to lay some claim to the achievements of her distinguished son. His life reflects credit on his mother State, on his adopted State, and the nation at large. The best that can be said of hint is that he was a man brave and true. In all his; remarkable and chequered existence, he never sold his birthright. In this age, when the forms of the demagogue and unprincipled office-seeker are so clearly outlined oil our political sky, it is refreshing to turn and gaze on one who knew what it meant to be a true citizen of his country.



Trinity College Historical Society. Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society. Durham, N. C.: The Society. 1897-1956.

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