Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thomas Swann (1809-1883)
MSA SC 3520-1464


The following essay is taken from Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis:  The Hall of Records Commission), 165-170.

"THOMAS SWANN, a railroad executive whose political career encompassed three radically different political parties, was born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1805 or 1806. He would never tell the exact date of his birth, but a close relative asserted that at the time of his death, he was seventy-seven years of age. His father, also named Thomas Swann, was a prominent lawyer who had practiced in Washington, where he had filled the office of United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. His mother, who before her marriage had been Jane Byrd Page, was a member of one of the first families of Virginia. Swann attended Columbian College’s preparatory school in Washington and the University of Virginia, and following his graduation, he studied law in his father’s office. When President Andrew Jackson appointed the United States Commission to Naples in 1833 to negotiate the settlement of Spoliation claims, Swann was chosen Secretary and served in this capacity until the Commission completed its work in the following year.

"In November 1834, Swann married Elizabeth Sherlock, a granddaughter of Robert Gilmor of Baltimore. They had four daughters and one son. In 1878, when he was over seventy years old, Swann married Josephine Thompson, a sister of House Speaker Samuel Randall, but this second marriage did not last, ending in separation very shortly.

"Soon after his first marriage, Swann moved to Baltimore to become a businessman. In 1845, he was elected a director of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. 'In 1847, when this great road, which will ever be a monument to his far-sightedness, enterprise and skill of its projectors and builders, but which at that time was contending with almost insurmountable obstacles growing out of financial embarrassments, and the rugged character of the country through which the road passed, Mr. Swann was elected as its president to succeed Louis McLane, who had resigned.'1 He continued in this position until 1853 during which six-year period the railroad reached the Ohio River. He then resigned to accept the presidency of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad Company. While he was serving in this position, he travelled extensively in Europe.

[p. 166] "In 1856, after his return to the United States, he entered politics by becoming a candidate for Mayor of Baltimore on the 'Know-Nothing Party' ticket. In the election of October 8, 1856, he defeated Robert Clinton Wright, the Democratic Candidate, by a majority of 1,567 votes in a contest characterized as one of the bloodiest and most disorderly in the city’s history.

On the eve of the Presidential election of November 1856, Governor Thomas W. Ligon came to Baltimore to talk with Mayor Swann in order to get his cooperation to prevent further bloodshed and in an attempt to enable every citizen without respect to his party to exercise his political rights. His efforts were in vain. Governor Ligon, in his report to the Legislature, insisted that he was 'thrown upon my personal and official responsibility, before an important and respectable community, for the initiative in a measure which the exigency of the time demanded, and the Executive of the city was indisposed to adopt.'2 He left the responsibility for a peaceful, fair and honest election with Swann with the result that again 'party animosity ran riot throughout the city; the most desperate encounters took place, in which hundreds of infuriated partizans [sic] were engaged; arms of all kinds were employed; and bloodshed, wounds, and death, stained the record of the day, and added another page of dishonor to the annals of the distracted city. I retired from the scene, convinced that all this might have been prevented, and not without a painful sense of duty unfulfilled.'3

"In the fall of 1857, shortly before the holding of the gubernatorial election, Governor Ligon again made an attempt to secure Mayor Swann’s cooperation in an effort to prevent additional unrest, violence, and bloodshed. Swann, however, received the governor’s advances quite coldly. Ligon, feeling that the city officials were not inclined to cooperate with him in holding a decent election since 'violence was everywhere in the ascendant,' issued a proclamation placing Baltimore under martial law on election day. The issuance of the proclamation caused much excitement in the city, so Mayor Swann threw the responsibility for any blood which might be shed on the Governor by maintaining that there was no cause for this intervention until the city authorities requested it. Swann, on the other hand, also issued a proclamation to insure the peace through police efforts, and for that purpose, he appointed a number of special police. Leading citizens, satisfied with what the Mayor had done, urged the Governor to rescind his proclamation, but since Ligon still had his douhts that this election would be conducted peaceably, he refused to do so. This time, the 'Know-Nothings' were victorious State-wide, and when Governor Ligon retired from office he did so after the House of Delegates refused to receive his message.

"Swann was re-elected for his second two-year term in 1858.  Again there was widespread terrorism, and again Swann was victorious.  This time [p. 167] because of increased voter intimidation. Swann’s majority was an almost incredible nineteen thousand one hundred and forty-nine votes.

"Regardless of the merits of Swann’s administration, his tenure as Mayor is best remembered for its almost absolute disregard of public morals especially in the manner in which elections in the city were conducted. His primary accomplishment was the establishment of street car service. In securing this previously unavailable convenience for the people of the city, he at the same time planned carefully and wisely that Baltimore should receive an equitable return from those who laid the tracks and operated the cars on the streets. Thus, he devised the park tax system, which required the street railway company to pay the city a certain percentage of its earnings. Swann earmarked the revenue derived from this tax for the purchase and maintenance of land for city public parks, and he was responsible, in this instance, for the acquisition of property for Druid Hill Park, one of the most beautiful in Baltimore.

"Swann’s administration also resulted in accomplishments in other areas. He was responsible for the reorganization of the fire department with the introduction of steam fire engines and paid firemen in place of volunteers. He was instrumental in the introduction of the police and fire alarm telegraph system, and the improvement of the city’s water facilities.

"Up until 1860, Swann had confined his political activities almost entirely to Baltimore. The 'Know-Nothing Party' finally lost its hold in Maryland in that year even though it had ceased to exist throughout the nation some time previously. Following its dissolution, a considerable number of 'Know-Nothings' became members of the Union Party after its formation, and Swann among them, soon became active in its affairs. His speeches between 1861 and 1864 focused upon him the attention of the party’s leaders in Maryland and when its State Convention assembled on October 18, 1864, he was unanimously nominated as its candidate for Governor. Swann and his running mate, Christopher C. Cox, the Union Party’s candidate for lieutenant-governor, were elected by a majority of nearly 9,000 votes.

"Swann took the oath of office on January 11, 1865, although he did not become Governor de facto until a year later, or on January 10, 1866. In his inaugural address, he expressed the hope that the people of the State could 'come together once more, in a spirit of conciliation and harmony, to give our best efforts, as one party, to the work of reconciliation and reorganization upon which we are entering with such prospects of admitted and assured success.' Swann also voiced his opposition to slavery which he termed 'a stumbling block in the way of [our] advancement.' He hoped, too, that 'the labor of the colored race in Maryland may be profitably and advantageously employed.'4

"When Swann became governor in 1866, the Radical Republicans felt that he would continue the same course as his predecessor.  In Swann, how- [p. 168] ever, that party found no sympathizer, especially when it attempted to deny its opponents the right to vote, a course which Swann refused to follow. He endorsed Andrew Johnson’s reconstruction policies and pledged his cooperation 'to restore, by all the proper encouragement, and at a suitable time, the relations of the past, and to re-unite our people once more in the bonds of common brotherhood.'5 The Radicals, however, soon gained the ascendancy, so very shortly thereafter, Swann began to cooperate with the Democrats because of his opposition towards Radical Republican attitudes. Soon the Democrats made a comeback in Maryland, and before he left office, Swann had completely broken with the Radicals and joined the Democrats in an all-out effort to eliminate the odious registration laws and the hated loyalty oath.

"The real break came when allegations were made that the Police Commissioners of Baltimore had been guilty of partisan conduct in the municipal election of October 10, 1866. The Commissioners were subject to removal for misconduct by the Legislature, but during a recess the governor had this authority. Swann, consequently, advised the Commissioners that charges had been made against them, and that he would pass judgment on them. The Commissioners, however, denied the governor’s authority to take that action, but the Governor, nevertheless, investigated the charges and announced on November 1, 1866, that he found Commissioners Nicholas L. Wood and Samuel Hindes guilty of the charges. He dismissed them and appointed Thomas Valiant and James Young as their successors. The old Commissioners issued warrants for the arrest of their successors and had them jailed because they refused to give bond that no effort would be made to supplant the men whom Swann had dismissed. Although the disagreement between the governor and the old Commissioners became so serious that Swann requested assistance from the Federal government, a fairly peaceable election was held on November 6, 1866, when the Radicals were defeated and the Conservatives swept the State. Swann, in this instance, felt that 'a continuance in authority of men profiting by their own wrong, forced upon the people, in opposition to the will . . . of the voters of the city, and by armed combinations of irresponsible officials . . . would be a libel upon free government, and a gross and flagrant injustice to our outraged people.'6

"The General Assembly met on January 25, 1867, and elected Swann as the successor to John A. J. Creswell to a seat in the United States Senate. After the Democrats had completed arrangements to swear in the radical Cox as Governor, Democratic Party leaders convinced Swann not to surrender his office, because they feared that Cox would undo the things Swann had accomplished in restoring the right to vote. At the same time, word came from Washington that the Senate might refuse Swann’s credentials as Senator-elect on the ground that he had been too liberal toward friends of the southern cause. Swann used this excuse to reconsider his decision to resign. He continued as Governor until January [p. 169] 1869, when his term would have otherwise expired, sacrificing his own personal ambitions, feeling that he owed this duty to the people of Maryland.

"The Democrats of the State, meanwhile, had agreed that the permanency of Swann’s reforms could not be guaranteed and the State’s reconstruction completed unless Maryland had a new Constitution which would replace the one so narrowly adopted in 1864. The Radicals, however, appealed to Congress for aid, but this body made no effort to interfere in Maryland’s local affairs and left the State to work out its own political problems. The Constitutional Convention which assembled in Annapolis on May 8, 1867, contained not a single Republican member because of that Party’s opposition to its call. Because of difficulties encountered in operation of the 1864 Constitution, the office of Lieutenant-Governor was abolished, the distasteful loyalty oath replaced, the number of delegates altered and changes made in the judiciary branch. The Convention completed its work within a few months. The document it produced has remained in effect until the present time. As a compliment to Swann, the only governor elected under the Constitution of 1864, he was the only officer not removed by the adoption of the Constitution of 1867 and was permitted to complete his term when the new document was adopted.

"Swann reiterated his support for internal improvements by the development of Baltimore’s harbor facilities. He predicted 'increased activity in the general revival of trade,'7 and supported the creation of an agency to encourage immigration. 'The prompt emancipation of the negro race, and the withdrawal of a large class of this population . . . renders it important that some action should be taken to avert the consequences attending this change, already seriously felt in many parts of the South.'8

"In November 1868, Swann became a candidate for a seat in Congress from the Fourth District and was elected despite violent Republican opposition. He took his seat in the House of Representatives in 1869, and was re-elected until 1879. Swann was a most influential member of the House of Representatives during his ten years of service in that body. 'He was never effective in debate, not only because his gentle courtesy unfitted him for the rough-and-tumble contests of the times, but also because of lack of voice to make himself heard above the din and roar; but in quiet personal influence no member carried more weight.'9 He became a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, serving as its chairman when the Democrats captured control of the House.

"After his term had ended, he moved back to his home, 'Morven,' near Leesburg, Virginia. His health began to fail, and he died there on July 24, 1883. At his request, his body was returned to Baltimore, where, after funeral services at St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church, he was buried in Greenmount Cemetery. At his death, the Sun eulogized him in the highest terms. While condemning him for his earlier political errors, [p. 170] the paper went on to describe him as 'a great mayor, conferring inestimable benefits on the city he governed; not only was he a wise and beneficient governor to the oppressed portion of the citizens of the State, but he was one of the most useful and influential Congressmen this State or city ever had.'"10

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