Same game, new name History: Larry Young's not the first to face expulsion without a conviction. Robert Swailes got thrown out in 1797 for cardsharping.

January 14, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Times change, crimes change. Or at least the perception of what is honorable behavior does.

Sen. Larry Young probably wouldn't be facing expulsion from the Maryland House of Delegates today had he been charged with cheating at cards.

But life was different 200 years ago, in many ways. That was the last time a Maryland legislator -- Del. Robert Swailes of Montgomery County -- was expelled without being convicted of a crime.

Still, the Maryland General Assembly's inclination for rising dudgeon when one of its members puts the legislative body in bad odor by nefarious behavior doesn't seem to have changed at all.

Consider this resolution from the House of Delegates of 1797 with regard to Swailes' shifty activities:

Whereas it is essential to the character and dignity of a representative government, that the public functionaries thereof should support a fair and unimpeached reputation. And whereas it is represented to this general assembly, that Robert Swailes, a delegate for the county of Montgomery, has, during this session taken an undue and ungenerous advantage of a certain Henry Crist, by playing with marked cards and by that means winning the money of the said Crist; and this house being of the opinion that such conduct is derogatory to the character of a representative of the people, RESOLVE, That this house will proceed to inquire into the facts herein above stated.

It did, and found Swailes to be the knave he was alleged to be. He was kicked out of the legislature on a vote of 40-24, the minority who supported him probably being those who had never played cards with the man.

The Maryland State Archives, where this information was obtained, didn't report whether Crist got his money back.

To Edward Papenfuse, the state archivist, both the Swailes and the Young case suggest the dynamism of democracy: They show the people's representatives acting to clean their own house. He likened the two reports' "extraordinarily powerful language," despite the separation of two centuries. In this he sees an edifying historical continuity.

Others might prefer to speculate on the inconsistencies suggested. As in how certain crimes, infamous in one century, can evolve into virtual misdemeanors in another. Or in how the public might react to these crimes.

Papenfuse reports finding no contemporary newspaper accounts about the Swailes incident; in fact, the resolution is the sole source of information on the card game. Does that mean the papers thought it unimportant? Did they decide there would be little public interest in it?

The archivist speculates it might simply reflect a lack of reportorial enterprise.

At the moment, not much is known about Robert Swailes, who emerged yesterday, two centuries after his disgrace, as only a historical footnote to a larger contemporary story.

The archives is in the process of writing biographies of every member of the General Assembly since its beginning. But it hasn't got around yet to the last man expelled from that body without having been convicted of a crime. Swailes' official story is on hold until more money for the project is appropriated.

One thing is certain: Swailes did not dissolve in shame right in the streets of Annapolis after his expulsion.

What is known about him is this: He married in 1800, and possibly moved to Washington County, like some kind of provincial Lord Jim seeking solace in the distant mountains. Or maybe just to find some action.

"There is a court case involving land and debts in Washington County in 1802," says Papenfuse, sifting through the meager remnants of a life not grandly lived.

Before he entered politics, Swailes had served in the Revolutionary War as a member of the Third Maryland Regiment. "We have a deposition from him on not having received his clothing allowance in May 1779," Papenfuse reports.

There also is evidence that at least for a while, Swailes progressed materially in life, if not morally.

According to Pat Anderson, a librarian at the Montgomery Country Historical Society in Rockville, Swailes' name does not appear on the county tax list between 1783 and 1793, which suggests he was either too poor to be taxed, or perhaps was dodging the revenue agents at the time.

But then things improved for him. Montgomery County tax rolls from 1795 show he owned one slave, no real estate, Anderson said. He had some other wealth, however, which put together with the 15-pound value of the slave, enabled him to run for the legislature, which he did in 1797 -- the same year he was expelled. It was a short, inglorious career. But not an unprofitable one.

A year later, the county tax rolls show, Swailes' wealth totaled five slaves and two ounces of silver plate. Quite an improvement. But it was not to last.

"Just before he dies [in 1807, leaving four children], he falls on hard times and assigns all his personal property, except for a few small exceptions, to his father-in-law," said Papenfuse. "All he has left is a cask and press to make cider, three old tubs, one cutting box, two cart wheels, and one grindstone and tub."

Total value of his estate: $8.36.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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