Educator, governor. Father of South Carolina’s modern public school system and the only professional educator to serve as governor, Thompson was born in Charleston on January 24, 1836, the son of Henry Tazewell Thompson and Agnes Smith. Reared on his father’s farm in Greenville District, Thompson entered the Citadel in 1852, graduating in 1856. On January 1, 1858, he was elected second lieutenant and assistant professor of mathematics and French at the Arsenal Academy in Columbia. In October 1861 he was transferred to the Citadel as captain-professor of French and belles lettres. Thompson married Elizabeth Anderson Clarkson on April 6, 1858. The couple had nine children.
During the Civil War, Thompson continued to teach and served as captain of a battalion of state cadets, which saw service defending Charleston harbor and other areas of the state. Returning to Columbia after the war, Thompson served as served as principal of the Columbia Male Academy from 1865 until 1880. During his tenure, he forged the institution into one of the state’s premier preparatory schools, and it became universally known as “Thompson’s school.”
First elected state superintendent of education in 1876, and reelected in 1878 and 1880, Thompson laid the foundations for the development of the state’s public school system. As superintendent, he helped win passage of the 1878 school law that centralized management of the school system in a state board of commissioners. He worked to equalize expenditures for white and black schools, established summer teachers’ institutes in 1880, and was responsible for the creation of the State Teachers’ Association in 1881. His greatest achievement was in winning support for public education in general and for blacks in particular against a tradition of public hostility, apathy, and prejudice.
Thompson agreed to accept the presidency of South Carolina College in 1882 but reversed his decision (an action he regretted for the rest of his life) when he was nominated by a deadlocked Democratic convention as a compromise candidate for governor. Inaugurated on December 5, 1882, Thompson continued his advocacy of educational improvement, supported civil service and tax reform, and called for rigid economy in government. Reelected without opposition in 1884, he was appointed assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury by President Grover Cleveland on June 28, 1886, and resigned the governorship on July 10. Lieutenant Governor John C. Sheppard completed the remainder of Thompson’s term. Frequently in charge of the Treasury Department, Thompson’s timely actions were credited with averting a financial crisis on more than one occasion. On May 7, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison nominated him as a member of the U.S. Civil service Commission, on which he served with Theodore Roosevelt. He resigned in April 1892 to become comptroller of the New York Life Insurance Company, a position he held until his death.
Affectionately known as “the Captain” by his students, Thompson was described as “a man of charming personality, distinguished address and eloquent speech.” He died at his residence in New York City on November 20, 1904, the last surviving member of Wade Hampton’s original 1876 cabinet, and was buried in Columbia’s Trinity Episcopal Churchyard. Theodore Roosevelt said of Thompson: “I never met a braver, gentler or more upright man.”
Hennig, Helen Kohn. Great South Carolinians of a Later Date. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1949.
Thompson, Henry T. The Establishment of the Public School System of South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1927.