Call for forgotten East Lothian hero who fought US slavery to be recognised

Call for journalist and campaigner John Swinton to be recognised

Thursday, 2nd January 2020, 7:45 am
John Swinton was involved at a critical time in American history

HE was born in East Lothian and went on to campaign against slavery in America, was chief editorial writer on the New York Times throughout the American Civil War and helped establish the American labour movement.

But John Swinton (1829-1901) is virtually unknown in his native land.

And now East Lothian’s new MP is calling for him to be recognised.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Kenny MacAskill, who has taken a special interest in expat Scots, said he had never heard of John Swinton until he came across a mention in an obscure Scottish history book with an introduction by poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who named Swinton as one of his three heroes.

“More than a little ashamed I embarked on finding out about John Swinton and what a remarkable man I discovered.”

Mr MacAskill said it was not clear whether Swinton was born in East or West Saltoun, but he emigrated with his parents to America when he was very young.

“His father died shortly after they’d reached their new Illinois home and he had to start work as an apprentice printer just 13 years old. It also appears that he may have worked on a Mississippi steamboat for a while before the family moved north to Montreal, Canada, where he returned to the printing trade.”

Returning to the United States in the early 1850s, Swinton enrolled at one college and then another but does not seem to have graduated from either.

But he was becoming radicalised by the abolitionist cause and moved to Kansas where he became manager of an antislavery paper.

In 1860 he moved to New York and was appointed chief editorial writer for the New York Times, as America was convulsed by the Civil War. “With liberal views and a passionate commitment to Abraham Lincoln, he oversaw the paper thunder the Union cause in print,” said Mr MacAskill.

When the war finished in 1865, Swinton’s attention switched from slavery to socialism, then in its infancy.

“He became involved in the fledgling Labor Movement and started to champion the poor and oppressed, as America industrialised and poverty increased.

“A noted orator he even stood for a left-wing party as Mayor of New York, garnering few votes but viewing it simply as promoting the cause.”

He left the New York Times and went freelance, later joining the New York Sun and then setting up his own paper in 1883.

“‘John Swinton’s Paper’ ran for four years but was unable to garner either the readership or funds to survive. He returned to writing editorials primarily for the New York Sun with whom he remained until the early 1890s.”

Mr MacAskill said: “It’s a tragedy he’s not remembered. He’s a brave man. These were times when people could get killed for supporting causes like abolition.

“We just need to do a wee bit of digging to find out precisely where he was born - but that should be in the records - and then I think some plaque.

“He is a famous son of Saltoun, East or West, and should be recorded. We’ve got Fletcher of Saltoun but we don’t record Swinton.

“He’s been part of critical times in American history, not just the civil war but the start of the American labour movement. It’s a lad o’ parts story and a boys’ own adventure.”