Claude A. Swanson of Pittsylvania

By Henry H. Mitchell

Claude A. Swanson

13 years a Congressman, 4 years Governor of Virginia, 23 years U. S. Senator, 6 years Secretary of the Navy, and hailed as among the greatest who ever served in any of these offices, surely Claude A. Swanson's record from 1893 to 1939 qualifies him as Pittsylvania County's most renowned public servant.

Claude Swanson was descended from Sven Ganderson, who came to America from Sweden around 1635. The family lineage comes through Ganderson's son Andries Svenson (Swenson, Swanson); a William Swanson who had settled in Pittsylvania by the 1760's; and a later William Swanson (Claude's great-grandfather) who served in the legislature 1813-14, 1818-23, and 1831-36, and who along with Whitmell P. Tunstall fought for the establishment of the Richmond and Danville Railroad.

Claude's father John Muse Swanson (son of John, grandson of William) was born on the Swanson homestead on Pigg River near Swansonville in 1829. John married Catherine Rebecca Pritchett of the Brosville area. They had seven chidren: William Graves, John Pritchett, Claudius Augustus (later called Claude), Annie Blanche, Sallie Hill, Julia Benson, and Henry Clay. John Muse Swanson engaged in tobacco manufacturing, selling “Swanson's Twist” throughout the Southeast until 1876, when tobacco prices plummeted due to overproduction. After that time he relied for income on farming, assisted by his family including young Claude. John Muse Swanson had served during the last seven months of the Civil War as a Confederate cavalryman, but the hardships and reverses of the war years were minor for the Swansons compared the economic instability of the Reconstruction period.

Claude was born on March 31, 1862, the third son. At six years old he enrolled as a student of the famed and brilliant teacher Celestia Parrish. A witness to first his mother's failing health (she died when he was 11) and his father's failing business, he is reputed to have resolved to rebuild the family's fortunes. At 15 years old he went to work for $30 a month as a public schoolteacher. He later recalled, “Every person—who had a child too bad to keep at home and who was too stingy to hire a nurse for it, sent it to me to nurse during my school hours.” He remembered the building as “wretched” and the noises of the wind whistling through the log walls combined with the “whirl of the switch” as he “belabored the bad boys.” Though young, he apparently had already developed the tall, lean, muscular frame which later was much admired by the public and the press. Within two years, the legislature drastically cut education funds in order to retire debt left over from the war days, and Swanson lost his job.

He then enrolled in 1879-80 at the new Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College in Blacksburg. After one year, he returned to Danville to work as a grocery clerk.

Mr. Charles C. Hall of Augusta, West Virginia, a step-grandson of Swanson, writes the following anecdote concerning this period in Swanson's life:

“While Swanson was out of town, the Main Street Methodist Church Sunday School in Danville had appointed Claude its representative to a city-wide meeting. Claude took the innnovative step of memorizing his address and delivered it with such talent that Mr. James G. Penn and three of his friends (R. W. Peatross, John Cosby, and John [Noble] Wyllie) offered to pay for Claude's education at seminary. Refusing the offer of a gift, the young clerk asked to borrow enough money at interest for a degree at Randolph-Macon and a course in law at the University of Virginia. The counter offer was accepted, and Claude left his clerk job at the store of Mr. John W. Carter and went to Ashland.”

Mr. Hall further comments,

“The story is not new, but what may make it of interest to the [Pittsylvania] Historical Society is that while I was doing research on the Swanson family in the Genealogy Room of the Danville Library, I met a local lady who informed me that she had a copy of a letter that Claude Swanson had sent to her grandfather thanking him for loaning the money for his college education. I did not get the lady's name, but I left her my card and she was to send me a copy of the letter when she came across it again. Unfortunately, I have not received the copy; would you be interested in inquiring of your members who this person might be and how we might get a copy of the letter?”

[See letter to John Noble Wyllie.]

During 1882-1885 Swanson did attend Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, where he not only met both his future wives (Elizabeth and Lulie Lyons' widowed mother rented rooms to students), but also was recruited into Democratic politics by Richard Beirne, owner of the Richmond State newspaper.

Graduating in 1885, he moved on to law school at the University of Virginia. Even though he finished a two-year course in only one year and emerged a debating champion, he seemingly found himself somewhat uncomfortable among the sons of Virginia's privileged class. The Charlottesville experience behind him, it appears that Swanson ever after identified with and championed the causes of the working and middle classes, rather than the aristocracy.

In 1886 he began the practice of law at his home in Swansonville, then moved his office to Chatham in 1887 and continued there for five years. By 1887 he estimated that he had already achieved “a phenomenal success in the practice of law.” In 1888 he saved $4,000, from which he paid off all his college debts and invested $2,500 in Danville's Riverside Cotton Mills.

In 1892 he was elected to the first of seven consecutive terms in Congress. Taking his seat in 1893, he soon led the fight for establishment of rural free delivery of mail and the parcel post system. A member of the important Ways and Means Committee, he battled trusts and monopolies, supported legislation of benefit to workers and small manufacturers, and urged amendment of the Constitution to provide for direct election of senators by the people. He also advocated federal aid to states for highways, and played a significant role in changing the organization and procedures of the House of Representatives.

Swanson was married December 11, 1894, to Elizabeth Deane Lyons. (After her death in 1920, he was married in October 1923 to Elizabeth's sister Lulie Lyons Hall. He had no children.) In 1903 he and Elizabeth purchased Eldon, a large home just east of Chatham built by James Whittle in the 1830's. For the rest of their married life, the Swansons maintained a home at Eldon as well as in Richmond or Washington as his political career dictated.

In 1905 Swanson was elected Governor of Virginia. He resigned his seat in Congress February 1, 1906, and served as Governor until February 1, 1910. These four years were marked by great expansion of the power of the executive branch in Virginia government, which had previously been dominated by the legislature. Swanson increased the influence of the state board of education with regard to textbook approval and certification of plans for new buildings, plus funded consolidation of one-room primary schools and the building of new rural high schools. Using matching funds, he altered the state's concept of local education, appealing to local pride. He also is credited with the reduction of public debt, inauguration of agricultural demonstration and extension work, construction of a state sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis, legislation to protect women and children from excessive hours of work, creation of the two state executive departments of health and roads, and laying of groundwork for an organized system of road improvement.

On August 1, 1910, Swanson was appointed to fill the vacant U. S. Senate seat left by the death of Senator John W. Daniel. He later was elected for four more terms. He became a central figure in controlling Democratic Party policy in the Senate. President Woodrow Wilson especially relied on his leadership in gaining passage of much legislation including the Federal Reserve Act. Swanson's reputation for getting things done in the Senate came from his ability to forge alliances of normally competitive groups, the trust he inspired from his colleagues (he infallibly lived up to his word), and his remarkable self-effacement. Not one of the many pieces of leglislation which he shepherded to enactment bore his name. He let others take the credit of accomplishment. He was reputed to never have forgotten a face or name, and his friendships were many as a result. Adding to his personal popularity throughout Swanson's long public career, his anecdotes, political epigrams, down-home proverbs, and general good humor were legendary.

Possibly Swanson's greatest interest during his Senatorial years was the U. S. Navy. He was convinced, in the face of strong isolationist sentiments, that a strong navy was essential for survival of the nation and for the possibility of world peace.

On March 3, 1933, Swanson resigned his Senate seat to accept appointment as Secretary of the Navy in Franklin D. Roosevelt's original cabinet. During the next two years he succeeded in getting Congressional approval for construction of a greater tonnage of warships than in all the previous twelve years combined. In 1935 Japan openly violated treaty agreements with regard to naval armament, and Swanson asked and received authority for more construction. When he died in office on July 7, 1939, just eight weeks before Hitler's armies invaded Poland to touch off World War II, the United States was well on the way to constructing the most powerful navy in the world. Without Swanson's efforts to this end, it is recognized that the Pearl Harbor disaster two years later would probably have paralyzed both the Navy and the nation.

As many monstrous federal administrative edifices were constructed along Constitution Avenue during the 1930's, reporters questioned Secretary Swanson as to when he was going to ask Congress for funds for a new Navy Building. “When we have all the ships we need,” replied the Secretary. “In the meantime we will function in an attic, if necessary.” He believed that the Navy's front should be on the high seas and not along the Potomac.

A newspaper account of his death on July 7, 1939 stated, “Swanson did for the Navy what many a Cabinet officer is unable to achieve for his department. That was to maintain it in such good standing on Capitol Hill that Congress frequently was moved to vote funds and authorizations for the Navy men that it might have withheld but for the Secretary's position.”

Members of the United States Senate so greatly loved and respected Swanson that, when he died six years after leaving the Senate, they honored him with a state funeral in the Senate chamber. He was buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.


President Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“He brought to the public service not only ability and integrity but a loyalty to principle and to duty from which no consideration could move him. By his example he has provided an inspiration for all public servants.”

Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Naval Operations:

“Throughout his long career in public service he has been a statesman of the highest character and attainment, of unquestioned integrity; and he has devoted himself unremittingly and without reserve to the best interest of his country.”

Rear Admiral Harold R. Stalk, U. S. Naval Department:

“Secretary Swanson's great ambition was to see the Navy made adequate for the defense of the United States. I know his satisfaction and his happiness at seeing that desire in process of fulfillment.”

Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the U. S. Treasury:

“The government has lost a loyal and capable statesman in the death of the Secretary of the Navy.”

Charles Edison, Assistant Secretary of the Navy:

“A long and brilliant career of usefulness has come to an end. His loyalty to the people he served and his rugged honesty make him live in our hearts as a friend and an example of a public servant of the highest type.”

General George C. Marshall, U. S. Army:

“His passing is a great loss to the armed forces of our nation.”

James A. Farley, U. S. Postmaster General:

“He had a personal record that even surpasses his distinguished public career, and I doubt if any man in public life made a greater number of friends than this great Virginia gentleman.”

Press Comments

Christian Science Monitor: “He has flashing black eyes, well-shaped head, black thick hair; he has a high forehead and strong straight nose. He is a handsome man and is a popular figure.”

News Syndicate Company, Inc.: “He is a prominent man in Washington's social life and goes big at every banquet. He is a great story-teller, full of anecdotes from his youth. He seldom touches liquor when dining out.”

Time Magazine: “The Secretary of the Navy told the Senate Committee, ‘To be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.’”

Richmond Times-Dispatch: “By reason of Senator Swanson's personal popularity and wide grasp of national affairs, and his refusal to play purely partisan politics, he is a power in the law-making councils of this country.”

Washington Herald: “A newspaper reporter asked Secretary Swanson ‘Why he didn't reply to criticism by an unknown official?’ Swanson smiled and said: ‘It is a bad policy to use a 16-inch cannon on a mosquito.’”

Portsmouth (Virginia) Star: “Virginia is proud of its Swanson and its people are proud of all the honors that come to him.”

New York Times: “‘When are you going to ask Congress for funds for a new Navy building?’ a reporter asked Secretary Swanson. He replied: ‘When we have all the ships we need. In the meanwhile we will function in an attic if necessary. A Navy consists of ships, not buildings.’”

Christian Science Monitor: “Claude Swanson was known for his political maxims. Examples: ‘Stay on the fence as long as you can, then drop down on one side, run fast, get to the head of the procession and eventually you will be credited with having led all along.’ Another example — ‘When in doubt do right!’ — with emphasis on ‘doubt.’”



This webpage is sponsored by Mitchells Publications.