Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The "unfinished" legacy of John B. Swainson

Yesterday, my husband and I took a tour of the State Capitol with tour guide Valerie Marvin. We had a great time....Valerie knows almost everything there is to know about the building, and I learned so much about the capitol and our state's history. Over the next few days, I'll highlight some of the more unique stories we heard during our three-hour trip into Michigan's past.

Today's post is inspired by a painting we saw, one in a series of state governor portraits that line the second- and third-floor rotunda walls.  Here it is:

Yes, his face is missing. Kinda creepy, isn't it?

This is a painting of former Governor John B. Swainson, who served from 1961 to 1963. If it looks like the artist stopped halfway through the project, that's because...well...he did. Swainson---who, like most of the governors whose portraits line the rotunda, paid for the painting himself after he left office---wanted an unfinished portrait to show that his political career wasn't over even though he was no longer governor. Swainson was only 35 when he took office, and 37 when he left, so he had every reason to believe that a bright future awaited him. Instead, the following years brought a series of ups and downs that left Swainson with an ambiguous political legacy.

John B. Swainson, this time with a face

Born in Windsor, Ontario in 1925, Swainson moved with his family to Port Huron when he was two years old. He served in the Army during World War II, and lost both his legs following a land mine explosion in France in 1944. Swainson convalesced at the Percy Jones Army Hospital in Battle Creek, learning to walk again with the help of prosthetic limbs. Eventually, Swainson enrolled in Olivet College, where he met his future wife, Alice Nielson. He earned a law degree from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, then returned to Michigan to begin his political career.

Swainson, a Democrat, was elected to the Michigan Senate twice, in 1954 and 1958. However, when Lieutenant Governor Philip Hart won a seat in the United States Senate, Swainson left his own position and took Hart's place as the governor's second-in-command in 1958. When Governor G. Mennen Williams decided not to run for another term, Swainson entered the race and won by a narrow margin. He served for two years (which at the time was the length of a single term for the governor), but lost the next election to Republican George Romney. At that point, Swainson commissioned the creepy portrait of himself, and looked ahead to his next career move.

After practicing law for a few years, then serving as a judge for the Wayne County Circuit Court, Swainson became a justice on the Michigan Supreme Court in 1971. It was there that his political career took a nosedive. A convict named John J. Whalen accused Swainson of accepting a $20,000 bribe in return for Swainson's promise to help Whalen obtain a new trial for a burglary charge. The accusation came at the worst possible time, as Swainson was then considering a run for the United States Senate. Though Swainson was found not guilty of bribery, he was convicted of perjuring himself during his grand jury testimony, and consequently forced to resign his seat on the Michigan Supreme Court. Swainson was also stripped of his law license for three years, and sentenced to 60 days in a halfway house---an embarrassing outcome for a man who once sat in the governor's chair. (Note that some students of the case insist that Swainson got a raw deal and was essentially the victim of a "witch hunt" conducted by a prosecutor determined to ferret out corruption, even where it didn't exist.)

Though Swainson left the Supreme Court in disgrace, his life in public service didn't end altogether. In fact, his later work overshadowed some of the scandal that had marked his earlier career. In 1985, Governor James Blanchard appointed Swainson president of the Michigan Historical Commission, a role Swainson filled until 1994, when he died at age 68 of a heart attack. He is buried in Manchester's Oak Hill Cemetery. In 1996, perhaps demonstrating that the once-disgraced politician had redeemed himself in the public's eyes, the Michigan Historical Commission established the "Governor John B. Swainson Award" to honor public employees who go out of their way to preserve the state's history.

For more information...

Lawrence M. Glazer has written a biography of Swainson, called "Wounded Warrior". It's gotten great reviews, and sounds like an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about Swainson's life, from his early years, to his downfall, to his eventual redemption.

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