James Swan, 1754-1831: “A Corrupt Unprincipalled Rascal”

There’s gratitude for you!  Colonel Swan had been one of the original Tea Partiers  (the early iteration, the ones who dressed as Indians and got on the boats),  a veteran of Bunker Hill and other life threatening engagements during the revolution, a firm revolutionary from the beginning.  Once in the money, he acted as surety for privateers,  doing well by doing good.  And for this James Monroe calls him a rascal?

Swan was born in Scotland and came to Boston at age eleven.   He worked in an accounting house.  He was diligent and studious and even principled;  at eighteen, he wrote A Discussion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade.  (He was against it.) 

At age nineteen,  he joined other young clerks and became a Son of Liberty.  He was also a Freemason and a member of the Scots Charitable Society, just the sort fo thing a young man on the make would do.  Come the revolution, he fought on Bunker hill and was made a captain of artillery.

But it was in the ledger books that he made is greatest contribution, finding ways to keep the military as well provided as possible on what little money there was, and even covering shortfalls out of his own pocket.  (Or possibly that of his wife, heiress Hepzibah Clarke whom he married in  1776.)  He was able to act as surety on several privateers, and advised various states on how to finance their parts of the revolution.

He  was well rewarded for his troubles, in the way of some high appointments and the title of colonel. He moved into properties seized from notorious Tories and sold for the benefit of the Commonwealth.  He hobnobbed with and was well regarded by such men as Generals Washington, Lafayette, Knox.

The war over, he and his wife enjoyed the peace in high style.  Too high, in fact, and some real estate speculations went south.  By 1787, he and Mrs. Swan were off to France  where he made connections through his old army buddy Lafayette.  One hand washes the other, especially if one is a mason, and Swan soon had government contracts to sell supplies (lumber, flour, beef, pork)  to the army  in Santa Domingue and France.*  It’s a classic way of getting rich, and he made out very well indeed.  Debts were repaid, and then some.

Paris during and after the revolution was a time for dubious types.   American envoy James Monroe had serious doubts about the fellow, as evidenced by the subtitle.  Ever the patriot, in 1795 Swan, again seriously rich,  assumed all the debts owed by America to France, thus freeing the young republic from that particular foreign entanglement.  These he re-sold for a profit. He also acted as middleman for the cash strapped French by taking Fine French Furniture confiscated from guillotined aristocrats and selling it abroad.   Some can be seen in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

He came home in triumph in 1795 and like a good plutocrat had the Gilbert Stuart portrait  seen above, and an estate in Dorchester, Massachusetts (on land previously confiscated from a Loyalist Nathaniel Hatch).  He continued wheeling and dealing, and for high stakes.  He was, when it came time to settle accounts with France for the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the largest creditor against French money.

It would have been as well to leave France alone at this point, but he didn’t.  He returned in 1798 to bolster the business.  In 1808, a French business partner charged him with a debt of 2,000,000 francs.  He denied the charge.  The government  threw him in debtor’s prison in St. Pelegie.  He continued to deny the charge, and did so for the next twenty two years. (While he would not pay his own alleged debts, he did pay of those of some fellow prisoners.)

It could have been worse.  His wife sent him enough money to set up a house arrest in rooms on the Rue de la Clef.  Just the basics – servants, stables, cooks, female company (he had long not been the most faithful of husbands, and this was France, after all).  His stand on principle kept him in this situation for the next twenty two years until King Louis Phillipe opened his reign by cancelling all debts.  Swan was by now seventy six and ailing.

The story was that his last wish was to embrace his old comrade Lafayette.**  This done, he returned home and died the next day.

*Santa Domingue was a sugar island and American foodstuffs were frequently bought to feed the slaves working the fields.  Well, he was older than he once was.

** The other story is that Lafayette refused to see him after the French Revolution.

One thought on “James Swan, 1754-1831: “A Corrupt Unprincipalled Rascal”

  1. Pingback: This Day in History: July 9th | Steph's Random Facts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *