Thomas Swann

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Thomas Swann
Thomas Swann of Maryland - photo portrait seated.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maryland's 4th district
In office
March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1879
Preceded by John Ritchie
Succeeded by Robert Milligan McLane
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maryland's 3rd district
In office
March 4, 1869 – March 3, 1873
Preceded by Charles E. Phelps
Succeeded by William J. O'Brien
33rd Governor of Maryland
In office
January 10, 1866 – January 13, 1869
Lieutenant Christopher C. Cox
Preceded by Augustus Bradford
Succeeded by Oden Bowie
Personal details
Born February 3, 1809
Alexandria, Virginia
Died July 24, 1883 (aged 74)
Leesburg, Virginia
Political party Know-Nothing
Alma mater The George Washington University
Profession Politician

Thomas Swann (February 3, 1809 – July 24, 1883) was an American politician. Initially a Know-Nothing, and later a Democrat, he served as mayor of Baltimore (1856–1860), as the 33rd Governor of Maryland (1866–1869), and as U.S. Representative from Maryland's 3rd congressional district and then 4th congressional district (1869–1879).

Thomas Swann took the oath of office on January 11 1865, however he did not actually assume the governors office until January 10th 1866.[1]

Many believed once slavery was abolished in Maryland African Americans would begin a mass emigration to a new state. As white soldiers returned from southern battlefields they came home to find that not only were their slaves gone but soil exhaustion was causing tobacco crops to fail. With a growing number of disaffected white men, Thomas Swann embarked on a campaign of "Redemption" and "restoring to Maryland a white mans government."[2]

His strategy was built on the platform of entrenching white power and displacing independent African Americans. During this same time an oyster crisis in New England caused the oyster industry in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay to surge. Swann's problem was that the Bay oyster trade was heavily African American. His solution; use government policy to push African Americans in the bay and replace them with, "White Labor, at reasonable rates wherever needed"[3]

Even more egregious he enacted a law that encouraged white fisherman to harass black fisherman when he signed into law the states first ever "Oyster Code." “And be it acted, that all owners and masters of canoes, boats, or vessels licensed under this article, being White Men, are hereby constituted officers of this state for the purpose of arresting and taking before any judge or Justice of the Peace, any persons who may be engaged in violating any provisions of this article. Furthermore, all such owners and masters are hereby vested with the power to summon pose comitatus to aid in such arrest.” [4][5]

Even more egregious, any property seized during an "Oyster Code" violation was auctioned off, with one quarter of the proceeds going to the white man who initiated the arrest. [6]


The Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to Maryland although it was still a "slave state" because it was a non-Confederate state having officially remained in the Union and President Lincoln feared that ending slavery there at the height of the Civil War would cause it to leave the Union. So it required a state level referendum in Maryland to end slavery. When slavery was abolished in Maryland in 1864 with the adoption of the third Maryland Constitution of 1864, Lincoln's fears were not realized and the war finished out without Maryland ever defecting to the Confederate States Southern side, although many men from Southern Maryland counties and the "Eastern Shore" did fight on the side of the Confederacy.

Early life and career[edit]

Swann was born in Alexandria, Virginia, and attended Columbian College (now George Washington University) in Washington, D.C., and the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.[9] He studied law and was admitted to the Bar. A Democrat, he was appointed by 7th President Andrew Jackson as secretary of the United States Commission to Naples (Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - later Italy).

Railroad industry[edit]

In 1834, Swann moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 1834, where he engaged in business in the new railroad industry. Swann rose to be director and president of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1847, serving in that position until his resignation in 1853. He was chosen as president of the Northwestern Virginia Railroad.[10]

Mayor of Baltimore[edit]

1856 election[edit]

Swann was first elected Mayor of Baltimore in 1856 as a member of the "Know Nothing" movement (also known as the "American Party") in one of the bloodiest and corrupted elections in state history. He supposedly defeated Democratic challenger Robert Clinton Wright by over a thousand votes.

During the mid-1850's, public order in Baltimore City had often been threatened by the election of candidates of the "Know Nothing" movement which became known as the "American Party".[11] In October 1856 the "Know Nothing" previous incumbent Mayor Samuel Hinks was pressed by Baltimoreans to order the Maryland State Militia in readiness to maintain order during the mayoral and municipal elections, as violence was anticipated. Hinks duly gave State Militia general George H. Steuart the order, but he soon rescinded it.[12] As a result, violence broke out on polling day, with shots exchanged by competing mobs.[12] In the 2nd and 8th Wards several citizens were killed, and many wounded.[13] In the 6th ward artillery was used, and a pitched battle fought on Orleans Street in East Baltimore/Jonestown/Old Town neighborhoods between "Know Nothings" and rival Democrats, raging for several hours.[13] The result of the election, in which voter fraud was widespread, was a victory for Swann by around 9,000 votes.[13]

1857 election[edit]

In 1857, fearing similar violence at the upcoming elections, Governor Thomas W. Ligon ordered commanding General George H. Steuart of the Maryland State Militia to hold the First Light Division, Maryland Volunteers in readiness.[14] However, Mayor Swann, this time running for re-election, successfully argued for a compromise measure involving special police forces to prevent disorder, and Steuart's militia were stood down.[14] This time, although there was less violence than in 1856, the results of the vote were again compromised, and the "Know-Nothings" took many state offices in a heavily disputed ballot.[14]

1858 election[edit]

He was re-elected in 1858, again with widespread violence prevalent, and won by over 19,000 votes due to a large amount of voter intimidation.

There were a great deal of internal improvements and urban modernizations during Swann's tenure as mayor. The long-time colonial-era various in-fighting problems and competitive volunteer independent firefighting companies since 1763 (under a loose confederation of the "Baltimore City United Fire Department" of 1835) were replaced in 1858 with paid professional firefighters with the organization of the modern current Baltimore City Fire Department, and were given steam-powered fire engines and a better emergency telegraph alarm system. His office also oversaw the creation of the horse-drawn streetcar system in Baltimore replacing the older omnibuses, the purchase from the Col. Nicholas Rogers estate and creation of the large tract for Druid Hill Park in 1860, overlooking the west banks of the Jones Falls. Following the municipal purchase of the former private Baltimore Water Company, (since 1804), saw the replacement of its old wooden pipes and aging inadequate infrastructure with the beginnings of two water-sewage construction projects along the upper Jones Falls. Following was the major public works project of the construction of the dam at the new Lake Roland Reservoir along with the organization of a new city water board and extension of new waterworks service into new outlying areas of the growing metropolis. The "Basin" (Baltimore Inner Harbor) was dredged at 20 feet depth during his term as governor, and several new schools were added to the city. The former constables and "City Night Watch" system from 1784 were replaced by a newly organized Baltimore City Police Department under then modern principles was established and given new uniforms, weapons and training (later placed under supervision and appointment powers of the Governor in 1860 to the 1990's). To provide better street lighting, the offices of Superindendents of Lamps with the then existing gas system was created.

Violence was greatly prevalent during Swann's term as mayor, especially during election campaigns. Then Maryland Governor Thomas W. Ligon sought Swann's assistance to try to avoid "Know Nothing" riots during the 1856 Presidential elections, but little was resolved during the meeting, and continued riots ensued during the night of the election wounding and killing many. Ligon criticized Swann for not taking the necessary precautions, recalling the event as partisans "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". This continued to contribute to Baltimore's oft-stated ignoble reputation and nickname of "Mobtown", acquired since the anti-war riots of 1812. Gov. Ligon did not cooperate with Mayor Swann during the state elections of 1857, and immediately imposed martial law upon Baltimore City before election day had begun. Swann was angered, and insisted this was not necessary, but, recalling the events one year earlier, Ligon refused to lift the martial law status.

Governor of Maryland[edit]

In 1860, Swann left the American Party, which dissolved, and joined the merged war-time Union Party. In 1864, he was unanimously nominated as the 33rd Governor of Maryland during its nomination convention. He won election with lieutenant-governor running mate Christopher C. Cox by over 9,000 votes. He took the oath of office on January 11, 1865, but did not become governor "de facto" until one year later (January 1866), (because of the then system of interim periods with later inagurations following elections), serving until January 1869. In his inaugural address, he encouraged re-union in the State following the American Civil War, and voiced his opposition to slavery, deeming it "a stumbling block in the way of [our] advancement".[citation needed]

Radical Republicans of Maryland criticized Swann for supporting the Reconstruction policies of Democratic and 17th President Andrew Johnson, and refusing to adopt their proposals. He eventually parted with the Republicans and joined the Democratic Party during his term as Governor. He had strongly opposed requiring the "ironclad" loyalty oath and registration laws promoted by the Radical Republicans for former Confederates in the state.

A later portrait of Mayor/Governor Thomas Swann, circa 1865-1880

In 1867, the General Assembly of Maryland nominated Swann to succeed John A. J. Creswell to the United States Senate. But, Radical Republicans had gained control of the Congress in 1867, and refused to allow Swann admission to the Senate because he had switched parties. The Democrats in Maryland began to fear that, if Swann left, the Maryland lieutenant governor, a Radical Republican, might place Maryland under a military, Reconstruction government and temporarily disfranchise whites who had served in the Confederacy. Also, they did not want to lose reforms made by Swann with other voting rights. Rather than fight the Radicals in Congress to gain a seat, Swann was convinced by Democrats to remain as governor and turn down the Senate seat.

Swann supported internal improvements to state infrastructure, especially after the war, and he is credited with greatly improving the facilities at the Baltimore Port and Harbor. He also encouraged immigration, and the immediate emancipation of slaves following the War. By 1860, 49% of blacks in Maryland were already free, giving them a substantial position and economic strength in the years following the war.[15]

U.S. Congressional career and final years[edit]

In 1868, Swann was elected to Congress from Maryland's 3rd congressional district, gaining re-election and serving until 1873. With redistricting changes, he was elected in 1873 from Maryland's 4th congressional district, serving three terms until 1879. In the United States Congress, Swann was chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (Forty-fourth and Forty-fifth Congresses).

In 1878, the widower married Josephine Ward Thomson, daughter of Representative ("Congressman") Aaron Ward and widow of U.S. Senator John Renshaw Thomson.

Swann died on his estate, "Morven Park", near Leesburg, Virginia. He is interred in the landmark Green Mount Cemetery (southeast of Maryland Route 45 and East North Avenue) of Baltimore. In eulogy, the influential "The Sun" newspaper of Baltimore criticized his early political errors, but credited him as "a great mayor, conferring inestimable benefits on the city he governed; not only was he a wise and beneficent 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."[citation needed]

Swann Park, off of South Hanover Street (Maryland Route 2) in the South Baltimore/Spring Gardens area, adjacent to the eastern waterfront of Middle Branch (Smith and Ridgley's Coves) of the Patapsco River is named for him and also serves as an occasional athletic home for the former Southern High School (now Digital Harbor High School). Nearby are large monumental gas storage tanks for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company.


  1. ^ “Thomas Swann, MSA SC 3520-1464.” Accessed March 1, 2015.
  2. ^ “Democratic Conservative Mass Meeting: Immense Gathering in Monument Square--The Ward Processions--A Brilliant Display--Organization of the Meeting--Remarks of Ex-Governor Pratt-Resolutions--Speeches of Governor Swann, Hon. Daniel Clark, Hon. Mr. Nelson and Other’s.” The Sun (1837-1988). September 11, 1867.
  3. ^ “Democratic Conservative Mass Meeting: Immense Gathering in Monument Square--The Ward Processions--A Brilliant Display--Organization of the Meeting--Remarks of Ex-Governor Pratt-Resolutions--Speeches of Governor Swann, Hon. Daniel Clark, Hon. Mr. Nelson and Other’s.” The Sun (1837-1988). September 11, 1867.
  4. ^ "The New Oyster License Law--the State Oyster Police Force." The Sun (1837-1989), Apr 10, 1868.
  5. ^ “Archives of Maryland, Volume 0384, Page 0178 - Supplement to the Maryland Code, Containing the Acts of the General Assembly, Passed at the Sessions of 1861, 1861-62, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1867.”
  6. ^ “Archives of Maryland, Volume 0384, Page 0175 - Supplement to the Maryland Code, Containing the Acts of the General Assembly, Passed at the Sessions of 1861, 1861-62, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1867.”
  7. ^ "The New Oyster License Law--the State Oyster Police Force." The Sun (1837-1989), Apr 10, 1868.
  8. ^ “Archives of Maryland, Volume 0384, Page 0178 - Supplement to the Maryland Code, Containing the Acts of the General Assembly, Passed at the Sessions of 1861, 1861-62, 1864, 1865, 1866, and 1867.”
  9. ^ University of Virginia. A Catalogue of the Officers and Students of the University of Virginia. Fourth Session, 1827-1828. Charlottesville, VA: Chronicle Steam Book Printing House, 1880, p. 9.
  10. ^ Stover, pp. 63, 78
  11. ^ Andrews, p.475
  12. ^ a b Andrews, p.476
  13. ^ a b c Andrews, p.477
  14. ^ a b c Andrews, p.478
  15. ^ STEPHEN TUCK, "Democratization and the Disfranchisement of African Americans in the US South during the Late 19th Century" (pdf), Democratization, Vol. 14, No. 4, Aug. 2007, pp. 580-602


  • Andrews, Matthew Page, History of Maryland, Doubleday Doran & Co, New York City (1929).
  • Frank F. White, Jr., The Governors of Maryland 1777-1970 (Annapolis: The Hall of Records Commission), 165-170.
  • Wilbur F. Coyle, The Mayors of Baltimore (The Baltimore Municipal Journal, 1919), 93-98.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jean H. Baker, Ambivalent Americans: The Know-Nothing Party in Maryland (1977). Describes Swann's career in the American Party in the 1850s.
  • Tracy Matthew Melton, Hanging Henry Gambrill: The Violent Career of Baltimore's Plug Uglies from 1854 to 1860 (2005). Details the relationship between American Party politicians and the rowdy clubs affiliated with them in Baltimore during Swann's tenure as mayor. It includes a great deal of information on Swann and his accomplishments in office.
Political offices
Preceded by
Samuel Hinks
Mayor of Baltimore
Succeeded by
George William Brown
Preceded by
Augustus Bradford
Governor of Maryland
Succeeded by
Oden Bowie
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Charles E. Phelps
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maryland's 3rd congressional district

Succeeded by
William J. O'Brien
Preceded by
John Ritchie
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maryland's 4th congressional district

Succeeded by
Robert Milligan McLane