John B. Swainson Papers

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John B. Swainson Papers

The materials in this online repository form part of a larger John B. Swainson manuscript collection held by the Bentley Historical Library. For a more complete index to the materials, please consult the online finding aid for the:

For questions or more information, please contact the Bentley Historical Library's Division of Reference and Access Services

Democratic governor of Michigan, 1961-1963; also served as state senator and lieutenant governor. Content in this online collection includes digitized versions of analog sound recordings held by the Bentley Historical Library.

John Burly Swainson was born July 31, 1925 in Windsor, Ontario. He grew up in Port Huron, Michigan, where he attended the public schools and was active in sports. During World War II, he served with the 95th Infantry Division under General George S. Patton. Severely wounded by a land mine explosion, Swainson lost both of his legs to amputation.

Upon his discharge from the service, Swainson entered Olivet College. Here he met and married Alice Nielsen of Detroit, Michigan. Moving to North Carolina for medical reasons, Swainson attended and graduated from the University of North Carolina (LLB; 1951). Upon graduation, Swainson returned to Michigan and set up law practice in Detroit.

In Michigan Swainson demonstrated his interest in Democratic politics. In 1954, he was elected to the Michigan Senate from the 18th District (the northwest section of Wayne County). He was reelected in 1956 and developed a close working relationship with Democratic governor, G. Mennen Williams. In 1958, he was elected lieutenant governor; and in 1960, after Williams decided against reelection, Swainson won his party's nomination for governor. In the fall election, he defeated the Republican challenger Paul Bagwell in a close election. He became at age 35 the second youngest man to hold the office of governor and the first who was not native born.

During his term in office, Swainson sought to carry out the Democratic program of his predecessor, G. Mennen Williams. The debate focused primarily on finances and the need to overhaul the state's system of taxation. As it stood, monies for state government were raised through an inequitable combination of sales and property taxes. Swainson urged passage of a comprehensive package of fiscal and tax reform legislation that would shift the burden of taxation off the poor and middle class and onto businesses and the state's wealthier citizens. A cornerstone of his program was a state income tax, but because of Republican opposition in the legislature, the Swainson tax package was defeated. One result of the defeat was that local communities (notably Detroit), strapped for funds, began implementing their own city income tax ordinances. When the suburbs of Detroit drafted legislation (the Bowman bill) that would have prevented cities such as Detroit from taxing non-residents whose place of employment was in the city, Swainson vetoed the bill. As a consequence in the following election, he lost a substantial portion of the suburban vote that was to have been critical to his reelection.

Because of the opposition of the Republican legislature, the Swainson administration is known less for the legislation passed during his term than for his use of the office of governor, first through his power to veto what he termed "special interest" legislation and secondly, through his power to issue executive orders. Notable examples of Swainson executive orders provided for the establishment of the first Michigan Commission on the Status of Women, the implementation of a Governor's Code of Fair Employment Practices for all state agencies, the creation of a "Keep Michigan Beautiful" organization devoted to environmental matters, and the appointment of the Governor's Constitutional Convention Preparatory Commission. Swainson also used the prestige of his office to articulate his liberal, Democratic beliefs. As governor of an important northern state, Swainson was forthright in the press and at various Governors' conferences in his support of the civil rights movement and vocal in his abhorrence of the segregationist practices of the south.

Undoubtedly, the most important event of Swainson's administration was the calling of a constitutional convention. Michigan then operated under a 1908 constitution which was badly outdated and was blamed by many for the state's inability to solve its financial difficulties during the 1950s. During 1960 and before, citizen groups gathered petitions, and in April 1961, the people voted to call a constitutional convention. A primary election was held in July and a general election of delegates in September. The convention itself was seated from October through May 1962. During the summer months, an address to the people was prepared, and then on August 1, 1962, the convention reassembled to vote on this address and the slight changes that had been recommended in the preceding weeks. The convention again approved the document, then adjourned. The constitution was submitted to a vote of the people in April 1963 where it passed by an uncomfortably narrow margin.

Swainson's election in 1960 was close; in 1962, he was opposed by the popular automobile executive George Romney. Swainson lost, and contributing to his defeat, in addition to Romney's popularity, were the state's continuing financial woes and the fact that the Michigan's chief executive had been a Democrat since 1948.

In April 1965, Swainson was elected judge of the Third Circuit and reelected in 1966. In June 1969. Swainson and a group of concerned citizens founded NARCO (Narcotics Addiction Rehabilitation Co-ordinating Organization), a citizens organization formed to co-ordinate the efforts of various fragmented groups and programs attempting to combat the growing problem of drug use and abuse. On November 3, 1970, Swainson was elected to an 8-year term on the Michigan Supreme Court. In January 1973, he was selected to serve as Deputy Chief Justice. He resigned from office in 1975 following his conviction by a federal jury of perjury during an investigation into a charge that as justice he had accepted a bribe.

After serving a brief 60 day sentence in a Detroit halfway house, Swainson retired to private life. When his license to practice law was restored, he worked as a mediator and arbitrator, and became active in the Michigan Historical Commission, serving for a time as its president.

John Swainson died May 15, 1994.

Please note:

Copyright has been transferred to the Regents of the University of Michigan.

Access to digitized sound recordings may be limited to the reading room of the Bentley Historical Library, located on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan.

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