J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 05, 2022

The Mysteries of James Swan

One figure from Revolutionary Boston whom I’ve mentioned but haven’t gossiped about in depth is the Scottish-born businessman James Swan.

That’s because I see so many holes in Swan’s story, and so much of what smells like legend stuffed into some of those holes, that I don’t have a handle on him yet.

It’s clear that Swan, after making himself one of the richest financiers in the new American republic, spent most of his last years living in a debtors’ prison in France.

It’s still opaque why that happened. An official version—“official” in the sense that it was actually published in a report of the city of Boston in 1884—states:
It seems that Mr. Swan engaged also in various enterprises in France, which proved unsuccessful, and that his creditors caused his detention for many years. It is said that they hoped thus to compel his wife to purchase his freedom, she having a large inherited fortune settled upon her before her marriage. It is also said that Col. Swan refused to allow any such ransom to be paid, and that he remained a nominal prisoner until his death in 1831, although the kindness of his relatives and friends made his sojourn as pleasant as possible.
The same story with more detail appears in the recollections of James Freeman Clarke, a collateral descendant, published in the Massachusetts Historical Society Proceedings for 1887.

Last summer Erika Vause shed light on the French side of this mystery in an article for Age of Revolutions, “‘The Great Air of Liberty Choked Him’: Finance, Freedom, and the Legendary Death of Colonel James Swan.’”

Vause wrote:
Certain facts are readily ascertained. Swan did spend over two decades in French debtors’ prison for a debt of around 625,000 francs he owed to [former partner Herman] Lubbert, a fact reflected in dozens of legal briefs filed both by Swan and his creditor. . . . The law of September 10, 1807 allowed the arrest of all foreign debtors in France as a precautionary measure. While the new laws had limited detainment to five years for most debtors, there was no maximum stay for foreigners. The American colonel entered Sainte-Pélagie in July 1808 and would not emerge for over twenty years.

While in prison, Swan becomes harder to track. Although there is little concrete evidence for rumors that he lived luxuriously, maintaining several mistresses and footing the release of his fellow prisoners, such behavior would not have been unusual for elite debt prisoners. Swan explained his “stubbornness” with Lubbert in terms of honor. “Only considerations much superior to interest,” Swan maintained in one of his frequent petitions, “can dictate such a conduct and make one prefer to his liberty an obstinacy directed by honor and the correctness of his own cause.” However, Swan’s long stay probably derived as much from his actual insolvency, or at least lack of liquid assets in France, a claim Swan himself fruitlessly forwarded multiple times before courts in an effort to obtain release, as from a principled decision to not pay a debt he insisted he did not owe.
Vause analyzes how Swan’s behavior fit into the code of honor for merchants of his time. She also shows how the legend of the principled American stuck on the French side of the Atlantic as well as here in Boston. Within the first decade after his death in 1831, French newspapers invoked Swan’s case in discussions about the injustice of imprisonment for debt.

But people also interpreted Swan’s death a relatively short time after he left prison as showing that freedom was too dangerous for him. There were rumors he tried to return to the jail. One French warden wrote in 1836, “the great air of liberty suffocated him.” Clarke said the same in Boston: “the air of liberty seemed to disagree with him, for he died shortly after.” Such details have made me wonder if mental illness played a role in his case.

TOMORROW: But when was James Swan actually released?


Charles Bahne said...

Thanks, John, for a very interesting post (and for the link that led me down another rabbit hole).

As much as I'm intrigued by the story of James Swan, I'm even more fascinated by his wife. While her husband was jailed for decades in Paris, Hepzibah Swan was living the life of luxury on Beacon Hill, and at a grand estate in Dorchester. She had family connections with Henry Knox, and was an intimate personal friend of Gen. Henry Jackson.

One of the three houses she built for her daughters on Chestnut Street is today, ironically, owned by the British government and is home to the British consul in Boston.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Charlie. I had a bit about Hepzibah (Clarke) Swan in the first draft of this posting, wondering if maybe she was so happy living with Henry Jackson that she didn’t really want her husband to come home, but there was too much more to say about her. Eventually she’ll get some postings of her own.