David Lowry Swain (1801-1868)

Written By Kellie Slappey

The twenty-sixth governor of North Carolina from 1832-1835, David Lowry Swain was born in Buncombe County and later went on to be the third President of the University of North Carolina.


David Lowry Swain was born on January 4, 1801 to Carolina and George Swain, a Massachusetts native who had served in the 1795 Constitutional Convention.  David Swain was the youngest of seven children and attended Newton Academy in Asheville. In 1822, Swain was admitted and briefly considered attending the University of North Carolina but instead moved to Raleigh and studied law under Chief Justice John Louis Taylor.  In 1823, Swain was admitted to the bar and returned to Asheville to practice law. He married the granddaughter of Richard Caswell, Eleanor White, and together they had five children.


In 1824, Swain was unanimously elected by the people of Buncombe to represent them in the N.C. House of Representatives. Swain served for five terms and became known as an advocate of western North Carolina interests. Swain was elected as solicitor in 1827 and one years later went onto become a circuit judge.


In 1832, Swain was elected as Governor of North Carolina. His support stemmed from a coalition of westerners, Tar Heels opposed to President Andrew Jackson, advocates of states’ rights, and other Democrats who strongly opposed the party’s frontrunner, Richard Dobbs Spaight, Jr.


As governor from 1832-1835 Swain identified himself with the Whig Party and took a more active gubernatorial role than his predecessors.  He became a strong proponent for reform and changes in North Carolina’s system of education, taxation, banking, and constitutional reforms. Governor Swain was the catalyst for the 1835 constitutional convention in North Carolina and served as the chairman pro tempore.


Following his tenure as governor, Swain was elected as the President of the University of North Carolina, and in 1836, he moved to Chapel Hill.  Swain was president until 1868 and is remembered for setting up a meeting with General Sherman and urging for the protection of the University and Raleigh.  Swain was able to keep the University open throughout the entirety of the Civil War.


In 1868, Swain was involved in a buggy accident and died as a result. David Lowry Swain was initially buried in his family’s garden in Chapel Hill and then later moved to Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery.


Swain County and Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina are both named for Governor Swain.