Thomas Hendricks was born September 7th, 1819 near Zanesville, Ohio. He was the son of John Hendricks, a farmer and a deputy surveyor of lands, and Jane Thomson. He moved with his parents to Indiana in 1820 after being urged to do so by his uncle, William Hendricks, who promised the family they would enjoy prosperity in the young state. William Hendricks was a successful politician who was Governor of Indiana from 1822 to 1825 and a Senator from Indiana from 1825 to 1837. The family settled on a farm near his uncle's home in Madison, but moved to Shelby County in 1822. Hendricks' father became a moderately wealthy farmer, and operated a successful general store, and became involved in politics. Their home was frequently visited by the state's leading men and from an early age Hendricks was influenced to enter politics.
Thomas Hendricks' education began in local school, and upon completion he pursued classical studies and graduated from Hanover College in 1841 in the same class as fellow future-Governor of Indiana Albert G. Porter. He moved on to study law in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He returned to Indiana and began practicing law in the office of Stephen Major in Shelbyville and was admitted to the bar in 1843. Hendricks was married to Eliza Morgan on September 26, 1845 after a two year courtship. Their only child, a son named Morgan, was born January 16, 1848. The child died in 1851, age three.
Hendricks was a member of the state House of Representatives in 1848 after defeating Whig candidate Martin M. Ray, and served a single one-year term, serving as speaker of the house. He was elected as a delegate to the state's second constitutional convention in 1851. At the convention Hendricks was part of the committee that created the organization of the townships and counties of the state, decided upon the taxation and financial portion of the constitution, and also debated the clauses on the powers of the different offices. He also argued strongly for a powerful judiciary and the abolishment of grand juries.
Thomas Hendricks ran for Congress in 1850 and was elected as a Democrat to the thirty-second and thirty-third Congresses serving from March 4, 1851 to March 4, 1855. While in Congress, Hendricks was Chairman of the Committee on Mileage and the Committee on Invalid Pensions. In Congress he supported the principle of popular-sovereignty and the extension of slavery into the western United States. The position was very unpopular in his district and led to his defeat in his 1854 re-election campaign.
Following his tenure in Congress, Hendricks was appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office by President Franklin Pierce and served there from 1855 until 1859. His time in the office was very busy as the government was going through one of its largest periods of land sales in history. At the end of his time in the land office, he returned to his Shelby County home. In 1860, he moved to Indianapolis. He campaigned in an unsuccessful attempt as the Democratic candidate for Governor of Indiana in 1860, losing to the Republican Henry S. Lane by over 20,000 votes. He opened a law office the following year with Oscar B. Hord and practiced there until he was elected by the Indiana General Assembly to the United States Senate in 1863, during the American Civil War.
In the Senate, Hendricks was part of a very small Democratic minority and was often suspected of disloyalty. He delivered several speeches to the body and was constantly attempting to prevent the passage of what he thought was radical legislation during the war period. When the war ended, he also opposed the post-war 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. The Indiana General Assembly was re-taken by the Republicans in the year that his term expired, and he was not reelected to a second term. His seat was taken by Republican Governor Oliver Morton. Hendricks ran for governor again in 1868, but he lost to Conrad Baker by 961 votes in the state's closest gubernatorial election. Thomas Hendricks again returned to his law practice which took on Governor Baker as a partner only a couple of years later.
In his third attempt, Hendricks was elected Governor of Indiana in 1872, defeating Thomas M. Browne. He was the first Democratic Governor elected in the North after the American Civil War. Hendricks inherited a state government that was populated almost exclusively by Republicans and had been under almost continual Republican control for twenty years. He found himself regularly at odds with the Republican controlled legislature, who prevented him from achieving many of his legislative goals. Hendricks' term occurred during the post-war depression, the Panic of 1873, which led to a major economic downturn in the state. Unemployment increased rapidly, numerous businesses failed, multiple worker strikes occurred, and farm prices declined drastically. He twice called out the state militia to end workers' strikes forcibly. One of the strikes was a mining strike in Clay County, and the other was a railroad workers' strike in Logansport; both groups were unhappy with large wage cuts.
Hendricks signed into law the Baxter Bill in 1873, which put in place temperance laws. Hendricks began a debate on building a new Indiana Statehouse. The existing statehouse at the time had become far too small for the growing government that had been forced to begin renting building around Indianapolis to hold government bureaus. Besides its size, the building was also in severe need of maintenance and had become very dilapidated. Otherwise his term as governor was uneventful as he was unable to come to terms with the legislature. All of his other legislation, including appropriations bills, was delayed or never passed
Hendricks ran as an unsuccessful candidate for Vice President on the Democratic ticket with Samuel Tilden in the presidential election of 1876. The election was disputed, as their ticket won the popular vote, but came up one vote short in the electoral college. Twenty votes were still disputed and a commission was created to determine to whom the votes should go. In a party line vote, a commission awarded the disputed votes to the Republican candidate, with many historians believing that the Compromise of 1877 was struck to resolve the dispute.
The Democratic convention again nominated him for the Vice Presidency in 1880, but he declined for health reasons. Hendricks ran on the national ticket again in 1884 and was elected Vice President of the United States under President Grover Cleveland. Hendricks had been in poor health for several years, and he only served from March 4, 1885, until his death a few months later during a trip home to Indianapolis. He complained of feeling ill the morning before his death and went to bed early. He died in his sleep that night. With his death, the Vice Presidency became vacant until Levi Morton became Vice President in 1889