A Consequential Life

David Lowry Swain, Nineteenth-Century North Carolina, and Their University

By Willis P. Whichard

A Consequential Life

752 pp., 6 x 9, 38 halftones, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-8403-1
    Published: June 2024
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-6618-1
    Published: August 2022

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Distributed for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library

Shortly before David Lowry Swain's thirty-second birthday, the North Carolina General Assembly elected him the state's twenty-sixth governor. He remains its youngest. In the context of his time he was an activist executive, prodding the state to develop its infrastructure, thereby promoting economic development, which in turn would sustain universal public education (although then for white males only). As Swain's constitutionally limited time as governor was expiring, The University of North Carolina trustees elected him its president. He would occupy the position until shortly before his death almost thirty-three years later.

Under Swain's leadership the University would grow to be second only to Yale in student enrollment. He was largely responsible for student admissions and conduct, faculty hiring and supervision, and promoting the University to a broader public, both state and national.

Notwithstanding the title "president," he remained known as "Governor Swain." The appellation was apt. The larger life of North Carolina, and to no small degree the United States, continued to reflect his fingerprints. As university president he avoided overt partisan activity, yet stayed deeply involved in the political life and public policy of his state and beyond. His leadership in matters of historic preservation was uncommon and exemplary.

The Civil War devastated Swain's university. At its end those who would have been its students were in battlefield graves or recovering from war wounds. The able-bodied among them were busy reviving neglected family farms. A tuition-driven university could not sustain the resulting financial losses. Other lingering problems, and concerns for the president's health, surfaced with the fiscal difficulties. Only a regime change, the University trustees concluded, could revive the University's fortunes and secure its future. A little over a month later Swain, the deposed president, would be in his grave.

Over half a century ago historian Hugh T. Lefler viewed Swain as a North Carolina leader who perhaps merited full-length biographical treatment. A Consequential Life fills this perceived gap in the state's biographical literature. It not only details the life and work of the man who was arguably the state's most significant nineteenth-century leader; in the process it also recounts the history of the state's university in the three-plus decades when he was the focal point of its life.

About the Author

Willis P. Whichard of Chapel Hill is a lawyer who, like his subject David Swain, has spent most of his career in public office and the academy. He is the only person in North Carolina history who has served in both the North Carolina House of Representatives and the North Carolina Senate and on both the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. Dean and Professor of Law at Campbell University from 1999-2006, he holds the A.B. and J.D. degrees from the University of North Carolina and the LL.M and S.J.D. degrees from the University of Virginia.
For more information about Willis P. Whichard, visit the Author Page.


“Whether as a lawyer, state legislator, judge or university president, David Swain, as Willis Whichard reveals him, was a complex public servant who had a major influence over politics, the judiciary, slavery, UNC Chapel Hill, and other antebellum institutions in North Carolina. This is an engrossing and yet accessible biography that complicates our understanding of the former North Carolina governor.”--Hilary N. Green, Associate Professor of History, Department of Gender and Race Studies, University of Alabama

“During my four terms as Governor of North Carolina I sometimes thought we were having ‘tough times.’ After reading Bill Whichard’s superb book on the life of David Swain--especially as President of the University of North Carolina in the Civil War--my time was a ‘cakewalk.’ But Swain didn’t give up. Read about it!”--James B. Hunt, Governor, North Carolina (1977-1985 and 1993-2001)

"The title to this new biography of David Lowry Swain--A Consequential Life--almost understates the importance and influence of one of North Carolina's early governmental leaders and long-serving President of the University of North Carolina. Swain's lengthy career in public service in a variety of positions and as perhaps the greatest advocate for the interests of Western North Carolina and his home in Buncombe County is set out in great detail. Of special interest is Swain's critical role in the N.C. Constitutional Convention of 1835 and the ensuing constitutional reforms favoring western interests. This is a timely story bringing to life an historic North Carolinian from an era of troubling social and moral dilemmas and allowing the reader to evaluate both the good and the bad of Swain's long career."--Robert F. Orr, Associate Justice, Supreme Court of North Carolina (1995-2004)

“David Swain had a significant role in setting the direction of North Carolina during its formative years. Swain understood the role of government and education in creating a strong state. He had a vision for a better North Carolina that paved the way for who we are today. Justice Willis Whichard, in A Consequential Life, teaches all of us about David Swain, one of North Carolina’s most important public servants. The book also brings to life North Carolina’s early years and struggles through interesting stories and the words of Swain and his contemporaries. For me, as one of Swain’s successors as president, it was particularly interesting to learn about his stewardship of the University of North Carolina as it was seeking to find its way to becoming one of our nation’s top public universities. A Consequential Life is a wonderful addition to the history and understanding of our State and is a gift to all of us who love North Carolina.”--Thomas W. Ross, President, Volcker Alliance and President Emeritus, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011-2016)