In 1794, the Atlantic Ocean was a battleground, with the French and British at loggerheads. The British Navy, with the support of Spain and the Netherlands, blockaded French ports. Amid the chaos, Massachusetts’ James Swan saw the opportunity to make a fortune.
Swan played an important role during the American Revolution. Originally from Scotland, he had come to America as a merchant and financier. He also sided with the patriots. Swan had participated in the Boston Tea Party, survived wounds at the Battle of Bunker Hill and helped fund the Massachusetts militias in the early days of the war.
After hostilities ceased in America, Swan became an investor, buying land in Maine (Swans Island, for example). He also bought real estate in Boston and speculated in properties previously owned by loyalists. But the recession that followed the war hit his investments hard, so much so he feared bankruptcy.
Swan therefore turned his attention to France. Armed with introductions from a few French acquaintances, he journeyed to Paris. There he began studying the French language, its industries and its raucous politics.
James Swan Sees His Opportunity
France at the time headed into a 10-year period of great turmoil caused by the French Revolution. The Reign of Terror had quickly followed the overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of a new republic. Church leaders and members of the aristocracy were beheaded by the thousands. But Britain and her allies turned against the new republic and started a blockade.
The radical new leaders of France needed supplies for the military and food for the people. And by 1793, Swan had positioned himself perfectly. Swan had a cardinal rule in business. He always dealt with the leader of any organization he approached. If a company or political organization didn’t show him into the offices of its chief leader, he politely moved on. In this way he collected an impressive range of contacts.
Swan had learned a thing or two about acquiring goods during wartime. He assured the French they could find food and supplies, even from their British and Dutch “enemies,” for the right terms. Pay a decent price and assume the risks that cargoes would be seized and they would have all the supplies they needed. Accept delivery at the port and ask no questions about where a shipment came from, he advised. Also, allow delivering ships to slip away quickly because Dutch and British merchants would not want to be identified trading with an enemy.
Swan assured his French contacts that if they could do so secretly, British and Dutch merchants would appreciate a good return on their sales.
He advised the French could also obtain cargo by having a British- or Dutch-flagged ship stray close to French waters. Then the ship could allow a French vessel to “seize” its cargo, with payment made through back channels.
Food for the People
Swan found himself in the enviable position of having extensive connections with suppliers in America and elsewhere. He also had a newfound knowledge of French markets and import procedures.
The French government then created a commission to procure food supplies. It appointed Swan as an emissary to America. He had instructions to buy food (the country needed tons of flour), lumber, leather and other goods.
In return, Swan was offered French goods to dispose of in America. The belongings of the now-missing French aristocracy could be disposed of in America, where luxury goods were highly sought after. French fabrics, furniture and wines could be exported. Precious metals and gems seized from churches and wealthy aristocrats could be converted into hard currency. And all Swan asked for his services was a two percent commission on the transactions.
The crafty Swan managed to shift the form of his operations as the French government went through another jolting transition. In 1794 and 1795 he transitioned away from the food supply commission to a more market-based approach to importing foods.
Swan was not the only American supplying the French, but probably was its biggest supplier. He used his vast array of connections with American ship captains to keep France fed and functioning.
The Debts of a Nation
Yet Swan faced challenges. When the French entered a market as buyers, prices rose dramatically. Swan developed his own methods for trying to counter this. He would make a purchase and then hold off to give prices a chance to drop before placing more orders. But then his customers complained that supplies weren’t steady enough.
Further, he had to contend with the British Navy. The British were well aware of American involvement in supplying the French. Swan would “neutralize” his ships by making sure they were flagged in America, or another neutral country. But the British still seized American cargoes. They impounded one in seven of Swan’s vessels. His agents operating in Britain had a good track record of winning the ships back and receiving compensation for the cargoes, but the process took time.
A New Deal
In addition, he faced a limited market in trying to dispose of luxury goods in America. Further, the French had very limited credit. In late 1794, the French came up with a new idea to fund their need for imports. The French government had extended loans to America during the Revolution. During the recession after the war, the Americans had stopped making payments. So the loans were considered virtually worthless. But with Alexander Hamilton’s guidance, the American Treasury had stabilized, and these loans were once again viable.
The French authorized Swan to negotiate with America to sell back these loans to generate needed cash in 1795. Swan put together a deal with U.S. Treasury Secretary Oliver Wolcott. The American government issued new shares to raise money to repay the French. Some in America resisted buying the new shares, which had a value of more than $2 million to be repaid at 4.5 to 5.5 percent interest. Swan, however, found a ready market in Britain. British investors either did not know (or did not care) that in buying the American shares they were actually funding the French government.
A Return to America
During his years in Paris, Swan managed to put his affairs back on solid footing — and then some. But French and American relations soured as America made an alliance with Great Britain. Swan’s opportunities lessened. He planned to restore his wealth and return to America. There he would turn his attention to building his Dorchester, Mass. mansion and his American investments.
But Swan’s life took one more bizarre turn. On a return visit to France in 1808, Swan was accused of failing to pay a reasonably insignificant debt. He insisted he didn’t owe the money. The French courts disagreed, however, and had him imprisoned. Swan instructed his wife not to repay the debt. Instead she funneled him a small fortune so that he had a luxurious lifestyle throwing large parties at his prison apartment. If his enemies thought Swan would yield they were wrong. He remained in his “prison” for 22 years.
There are different theories about how James Swan died. He most likely left prison in 1830 as the result of a debt-forgiveness act by the government. Then he died the following year, a free and wealthy man.
Thank to: James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796, Howard C. Rice, The New England Quarterly. This story was updated in 2021.