In 1794, Thomas Handasyd Perkins and his brother James took a risk and did business in revolutionary France. They sold food in revolutionary France, a seller’s market, but a tumultuous one.
Perkins was born in 1764, to a merchant family in revolutionary Boston. His father died in 1773, leaving a large family and a small estate. Thomas Handasyd Perkins went into business with his brother James, and in 1788 married Sarah “Sally” Elliott. With a modest bequest from his grandfather and his father-in-law, he amassed an enormous fortune over his lifetime.
He first went into slave trading in Santo Domingo (now Haiti). He then traded sea otter skins from the Pacific Northwest and opium in the China trade.
From his merchant trading profit, Thomas Handasyd Perkins invested in New England’s industrial revolution. He owned the first railroad (the Granite Railway in Quincy, Mass.), holdings in textile mills in Holyoke, Lowell and Newton, Mass.; canals, railroads and lead and iron mines.
In 1796 in Paris, Thomas and James worried about getting paid for the food they were selling, so they accompanied their shipment to France. While there, Thomas dined with U.S. Ambassador James Monroe, Madame Lafayette and Tom Paine, who he found to be slovenly.
Paris was in turmoil. The revolutionary government had been purged, and four members of the Convention — the ruling body — were to be tried. Rumors flew that their rescue was to be attempted, and young men had paraded in the streets to denounce them.
Thomas Handasyd Perkins Writes
On that April 2, Perkins wrote in his diary:
Cloudy and unpleasant. This day will be an interesting one, and will show whether Jacobinism dare raise its hideous head.
Midnight – The commotions of the last evening, and the fear of seeing Jacobinism once more triumphant, brought out every man this day. The number of patrols that paraded the streets and the gardens of the Tuileries was astonishing. The guard of the day was forty thousand; besides which, the reserve guard, which may be called in half an hour, numbers sixty thousand. In addition to this, almost every man has girded on his sabre to-day, and paraded the gardens and palaces. The number of people in the Tuileries was very great; and every one was armed, and showed a spirit of determination to overthrow any thing Jacobinical that might show itself.
Barriere, Collot d’Herbois, and Billaud de Varennes, were this day brought to the bar of the Convention. The crowd was so great that there was no getting in. They are to make their defence to-morrow, or rather they will begin them; for it is supposed that they will procrastinate as much as possible, in order to give their party time to show itself. But it is too late: the general opinion dooms them to death; and there is but little doubt of their meeting it. If the condemnations finish with those at the bar, the public will be very much disappointed. Incendiary pieces are stuck up, setting for the necessity of taking off forty or fifty of the Convention, ere peace and security can be restored.
He died in Brookline, Mass., on Jan. 11, 1854.
This story last updated in 2022.