SWAYZE (Swayzie, Sweezey), ISAAC, politician, jp,office holder, and militia officer; b. 1751 in Morris County, N.J., son of Caleb Swayze and Miriam Drake; m. first Bethia Luce; m. secondly Sarah Secord; m. thirdly 18 Sept. 1806 Lena Ferris, a widow; d. 11 Feb. 1828 near Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake), Upper Canada.
The Swayze family emigrated from Germany in the early 17th century and settled in Salem, Mass. Isaac Swayze’s forebears moved to Long Island, N.Y., and then to Morris County where he was living at the outbreak of the American revolution. He claimed early participation by his family in the royal cause and he himself was employed on secret service, twice made prisoner, and badly wounded during the course of the conflict. Tradition has it that during one incarceration he was sentenced to death. Apparently his wife visited him on the day of the execution and exchanged clothes with him; he escaped, never seeing her again. What is known for certain is that he broke out of jail on 4 Sept. 1780 in Morristown and a $5,000 reward was put on his head. He was described as 5 feet 8 or 9 inches, with a sandy complexion, and a bullet scar on one temple. In June 1783 Swayze was thrown into prison by the British authorities in New York on suspicion of having committed a robbery on Long Island. He was freed the following month, but ordered to leave the city immediately. Suspicions of criminality swirled around him for the rest of his life.
In 1784 Swayze removed to the Niagara peninsula, where he eventually settled at St Davids. His fellow settlers there had doubts about his allegiance during the revolution; it was not until he had produced proof of misrepresentation of character that he was allowed his loyalist grant of land. Despite his neighbours’ suspicions, Swayze was elected for the riding of 3rd Lincoln to Upper Canada’s first parliament in 1792. Initially he was something of a populist leader and was considered by the more established elements in society to be a demagogue. He later contended that he had been elected by the “farmers and genral classes” who had “more confidence in my attachment to their interests, than they had in the nobles.” Because of his “integrity” in that anti-commercial House of Assembly, Swayze claimed, he was a victim of “shafts of malice incessantly hurled from some who ranked themselves high.” In 1795 he shocked provincial officials by assuming leadership of a popular agitation against the form of wording in which deeds were made out. There were widespread fears that the deeds would prohibit the sale of land. To put a stop to the discontent, the government charged Swayze with sedition. On 5 April 1795 Peter Russell* noted in a letter to Lieutenant Governor Simcoe*, “I am told too that Mr. Swazey is to be informed against to the next Grand Jury as an Exciter of Sedition.” He was tried, convicted, and forced to find sureties for good behaviour for two years. On 1 July 1796 he was commissioned a justice of the peace.
If Swayze ran for the second parliament, he was not re-elected. By 1799 he was campaigning in earnest for the election of 1800. The focus of public concern was the proposal by Robert Hamilton* and his associates to finance improvements of the Niagara portage by higher charges. Swayze emerged as a leader of the coalition of interests that challenged the commercial élite. He soon became the centre of a controversy. Accusations were made that he had been a horse thief in Pennsylvania. His supporters asserted that the story had been inspired by the “Caledonian Friends” of the Canada Constellation’s editor, Silvester Tiffany*. The reference was to the major Scots merchants of the peninsula led by Hamilton. When the voting took place, Swayze and Ralfe Clench defeated the merchant candidates Samuel Street* and William Dickson*.
In spite of his election, the allegations of horse theft against Swayze continued in the columns of Tiffany’s new paper, the Niagara Herald. Swayze declared that the “attachment of the community to me did not decrease with the increase of the enmity of the few” and promised to return to the House of Assembly “unawed.” He finally quashed the rumours with a legal suit against a voter who had accused him before three political gatherings of horse theft. The consequences of this action were sufficient to cause Tiffany to let the matter die. Within the assembly Swayze and Clench worked closely on legislation favourable to small merchants, farmers, loyalists, and local office holders; nothing of importance, however, was passed. In 1803 Swayze’s erstwhile opponents found he could be influenced: he was persuaded to support an assessment act favouring large land speculators in exchange for aid in securing a local appointment at Niagara.
Swayze was returned for the riding of 2nd, 3rd and 4th Lincoln in 1804. His politics, however, had become notably more conservative since 1803 and he gradually earned a reputation as a rabid anti-republican. The rise of a parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition, with a strong base in the Niagara peninsula, ended the antagonisms between the large merchants and their local opponents led by Swayze and Clench.
Swayze’s admission into local circles of power did not diminish his capacity for generating controversy or alter the aura of illegality that hung over his career. Some time before 1806 he was appointed inspector of shop, still, and tavern licences for the Niagara District. In January 1806 he reported that three men with blackened faces had broken into his house and stolen £500 in licence and land fees. Doubts were cast on his story and he later withdrew his petition to the assembly in which he asked to be excused from restoring the money.
Unscrupulous in his methods, Swayze curried favour by tackling the dirty work of politics, apparently with relish. In 1808 he chaired the committee of the assembly which resolved that Joseph Willcocks*’s language had been “false, slanderous and highly derogatory to the dignity of this house”; as a result, Willcocks was later jailed. In 1810 Willcocks urged Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore* to prosecute Swayze for circulating counterfeit banknotes.
Although he appears not to have previously held a militia commission, Swayze was appointed captain of a troop he raised at the outbreak of the War of 1812 known as the Provincial Royal Artillery Drivers. William Hamilton Merritt* commented, in his memoir of the war, that Swayze deserved “the greatest credit for his indefatigable exertions.” He was mentioned in dispatches after the battle of Queenston Heights. When the, retreating American army burned Niagara in December 1813, Swayze lost his house and barn, which he valued at £200.
In January 1816 Swayze was briefly involved with Timothy Street and Richard Cockrell in their attempt to establish a newspaper at St Davids. That same year he was elected in 4th Lincoln. He became a vociferous opponent of Robert Gourlay* and acted as the eyes and ears of civil authorities in the Niagara peninsula. He was, for instance, sent to the Credit River during the summer of 1818 to investigate rumours of preparations for an armed insurrection. In December 1818 he provided the information that led to Bartemas Ferguson, editor of the Niagara Spectator, being charged with seditious libel for printing Gourlay’s article, “Gagg’d-Gagg’d, by Jingo!” More important, he swore an affidavit that Gourlay was not an inhabitant of Upper Canada, thereby opening the way for charges against him under the Sedition Act of 1804. Gourlay’s attempt to prosecute Swayze for defamation of character proved abortive.
Gourlay once posed the question, “How could such a man as Isaac Swayze be elected, and repeatedly elected?” His answer was that Swayze “could cover all the stains upon his character, before my time, with hypocrisy.” The old tactic, however, failed abjectly in the election of 1820. His opponent, Robert Randal, portrayed him as a stooge of executive government and won an easy victory. The defeat in 1820 was Swayze’s last political campaign. A member of the Presbyterian church and a proprietor of the Niagara Library, he appears to have spent his last years quietly.
AO, RG 22, ser.134, 5, civil assize, Niagara District, 25 Aug. 1819; ser.138, box 1, R. v. Isaac Swayze, 1795, affidavits of John Young et al., 16 March 1795. MTL, W. D. Powell papers, B85: 16–21. PAC, MG 23, HI, 1, ser.3, 6: 3; ser.4, vol.5, packet A7: 65–66 (transcripts); MG 24, K5, 1: 1–3; RG 5, A1: 2888–89, 18717–18; RG 8, I (C ser.), 1203 1/2G: 37; 1717: 74; RG 68, General index, 1651–1841: 403. PRO, AO 13, bundle 83: 677–78; PRO 30/55, nos.7897, 8078, 8392. QUA, Richard Cartwright papers, letter-books, Cartwright to Elmsley, 6 June 1803 (transcripts at AO). Corr. of Lieut. Governor Simcoe (Cruikshank), 3: 342. Documents relating to the revolutionary history of the state of New Jersey, ed. W. S. Stryker et al. (5v., Trenton, N.J., 1901–17), 4: 648–49. “Early churches in the Niagara Peninsula, Stamford and Chippewa, with marriage records of Thomas Cummings, and extracts from the Cummings’ papers,” ed. Janet Carnochan, OH, 8 (1907): 149–225. R. F. Gourlay, The banished Briton and Neptunian: being a record of the life, writings, principles and projects of Robert Gourlay . . . (Boston, 1843), 153. “Journals of Legislative Assembly of U.C.,” AO Report, 1911: 199. Select British docs. of War of 1812 (Wood), 3, pt.ii: 546–47. “The settlement of the township of Fort Erie, now known as the township of Bertie: an attempt at a Domesday Book,” comp. E. A. Cruikshank, Welland County Hist. Soc., Papers and Records (Welland, Ont.), 5 (1938): 75. Statistical account of U.C. (Gourlay; ed. Mealing; 1974), 294–96. Canada Constellation (Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.]), 23 Aug., 6 Sept. 1799. Gleaner, and Niagara Newspaper, 18 Feb. 1828. Niagara Herald, 13 May 1801. Niagara Spectator, 17 Dec. 1818. Upper Canada Guardian; or, Freeman’s Journal (Niagara), 10 Jan. 1810. Armstrong, Handbook of Upper Canadian chronology (1967). “Loyalist and pioneer families of West Lincoln, 1783–1833,” comp. R. J. Powell, Annals of the Forty (Grimsby, Ont.), no.8 (1957): 86–88. Quebec almanac, 1806. Carnochan, Hist. of Niagara, 247. Charles Durand, Reminiscences of Charles Durand of Toronto, barrister (Toronto, 1897), 507. W. R. Ridden, “The information ex-officio in Upper Canada,” in Upper Canada sketches; incidents in the early times of the province, ed. W. R. Ridden (Toronto, 1922), 86–89. Wilson, Enterprises of Robert Hamilton.
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Cite This Article
Bruce G. Wilson, “SWAYZE, ISAAC,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/swayze_isaac_6E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Bruce G. Wilson|
|Title of Article:||SWAYZE, ISAAC|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1987|
|Year of revision:||1987|
|Access Date:||March 30, 2023|