Irving Swanson

Irving Swanson Image courtesy of Irving Swanson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
“Well, I remember one thing, of course, we had one vote against [the declaration of war against Japan]. It was a lady from Montana—Jeannette Rankin. She voted against war. She was a strict pacifist…I remember this vividly because she was down in the front row of the chamber, which was right in front of me, and she was crying like a baby. Ev Dirksen, whom she admired, and who was a dear friend of mine, too, came down, put his arm around her, and tried to get her—because he told me—to vote present. But she would not vote present, she voted against the war.”
— Irving Swanson, July 27, 2004 

Abstract & Transcript

During Irving Swanson’s decade-long career as a reading clerk in the U.S. House of Representatives, he had the distinction of reading the momentous roll calls in which the House approved declarations of war against Japan and then Germany and Italy in December 1941. Among his recollections of the December 8, 1941, declaration of war against Japan, are those of Montana Representative Jeannette Rankin’s lone ‘No’ vote against war and President Franklin Roosevelt’s entry into the House Chamber. Three days later, after the conclusion of the roll call vote to declare war against Germany and Italy, House Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas gave Mr. Swanson the gavel he used during the vote that day. In addition to these events, Mr. Swanson recalls details about the House Chamber in the early 1940s as well as the relationship between Members and floor staff. He also shares anecdotes about personalities such as Speaker Rayburn, Everett Dirksen of Illinois, Vito Marcantonio of New York, Richard Nixon of California, and Lyndon Johnson of Texas.

Biography

Irving W. Swanson was born on February 25, 1912, in Hudson, Wisconsin, and attended the local public schools. He attended college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and at the University of Minnesota, studying history and taking pre-legal coursework. In 1937, he married the former Margaret I. McMurray, who passed away in 2005.

Swanson initially came to Washington in the late-1930s to study law at George Washington University, where he eventually earned his J.D. While a law student, he took a job on Capitol Hill with the Library of Congress’s Legislative Reference Service (the forerunner of the Congressional Research Service). In 1940, he auditioned before House Speaker Sam Rayburn for a reading clerk position in the House and was hired. Swanson served as a minority (Republican) reading clerk in the Office of the Clerk and, after his principal Democratic counterpart fell ill, he shouldered many of the duties at the reading clerk’s desk.

In 1943, Swanson enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant, j. g., and was assigned to a post in Washington, D.C., where he acted as a liaison between the Navy Department and Congress—specializing in procurement issues. In 1945, after a chance encounter with Speaker Rayburn in a Capitol hallway, Swanson was released from military duty and called back to his position as a reading clerk in the House. He remained in that capacity until 1953, when he left to serve as a special assistant for the Majority Secretary of the Senate. After two years, Mr. Swanson took a position as the legislative counsel for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, headed by Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. In 1961, Swanson became the assistant for Senate Minority Secretary J. Mark Trice. He left congressional service in 1967, and took a position as a lobbyist for a major pharmaceutical company. He retired in the late-1980s.

Through his decade-long career in the House, Swanson developed a close relationship with Members of the House. Mr. Swanson’s principal duties were to read measures and communications that came before the chamber and, before the advent of electronic voting, taking recorded votes by voice roll calls. But these were not his only tasks. In an era when Members did not have large office staffs to handle and explain complex legislative issues, Representatives often called upon Mr. Swanson to describe legislation that was coming before the floor—what it contained and who was voting for or against it.

In 2005, after his oral history interview, Mr. Swanson donated the gavel used during the session to declare war on Germany and Italy, to the Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives. The gavel is on long-term display in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in an exhibit on House history. On February 13, 2012, Irving Swanson passed away two weeks short of his 100th birthday. He received full military honors and was interred in Arlington National Cemetery.

Video

Lone Vote: Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana

Eyewitness account of Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin's lone vote against the U.S. declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.

Irving Swanson, Reading Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded July 13, 2005 Deed of Gift

The Speaker's Gavel

Background on the gavel used during the House proceedings that led to the declaration of war against Germany and Italy on December 11, 1941.

Irving Swanson, Reading Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded July 13, 2005 Deed of Gift

Declarations of War in 1941

View a documentary featuring former House Reading Clerk Irving Swanson remembering the U.S. declarations of war in 1941, accompanied by historical audio and video footage.

Irving Swanson, Reading Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded July 13, 2005 Deed of Gift

Audio

Congressman Merlin Hull of Wisconsin

Description of a meeting with Congressman Merlin Hull of Wisconsin.

Irving Swanson, Reading Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded July 27, 2004 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana

Eyewitness account of Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin’s vote against the U.S. declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941.

Irving Swanson, Reading Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded July 13, 2005 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

House Reading Clerk

Recollection of being offered the position of House Reading Clerk by Speaker Sam Rayburn.

Irving Swanson, Reading Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives
Interview recorded July 27, 2005 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

Images & Artifacts

80th Congress Convenes, 1947
<em>80th Congress Convenes, 1947</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_80_congress.xml
Standing on the marble rostrum to the left of House Chaplain Bernard Braskamp, Irving Swanson prepares to call the roll for the opening of the 80th Congress (1947–1949).
Image courtesy of Irving Swanson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Irving Swanson Boarding a Plane
<em>Irving Swanson Boarding a Plane</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_plane.xml
Irving Swanson traveled often to other countries for interparliamentary conferences. In this image, Swanson and his wife, Margaret, board a plane for an overseas trip.
Image courtesy of Irving Swanson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Irving Swanson with Gavel, 2005
<em>Irving Swanson with Gavel, 2005</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_older.xml
After a career in the private sector, Irving Swanson retired in the 1980s. He is featured with the gavel used on December 11, 1941.
Image courtesy of the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Declaration of War Gavel
<em>Declaration of War Gavel</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_gavel.xml
On December 11, 1941, Reading Clerk Irving Swanson read President Roosevelt’s swift rejoinder requesting a declaration of war against Axis Powers Germany and Italy. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn presented this gavel, used during this historic session, to Swanson in appreciation for reading Roosevelt’s message and taking the roll call vote.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives, Gift of Irving Swanson About this object
House Reading Clerk Irving Swanson
<em>House Reading Clerk Irving Swanson</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_head_shot.xml
After auditioning for Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn of Texas, Irving Swanson began a near decade-long career as House Reading Clerk.
Image courtesy of Irving Swanson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Irving Swanson in the U.S. Navy
<em>Irving Swanson in the U.S. Navy</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_uniform.xml
Irving Swanson served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a liaison with Capitol Hill offices.
Image courtesy of Irving Swanson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives
Irving Swanson with Representative Richard Nixon of California
<em>Irving Swanson with Representative Richard Nixon of California</em>/tiles/non-collection/o/oh_swanson_glee.xml
Irving Swanson stands over the right shoulder of Representative Richard M. Nixon of California (seated at piano). Swanson remarked, “I was very friendly with Nixon at that time. He had a good staff.”
Image courtesy of Irving Swanson, provided by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives