PART TWO OF THREE PARTS
A DEAD WHITE MAN YOU SOULD KNOW
MAY 1 2016
In 1787, James Swan left Boston for France to forge a new business career overseas and most likely to escape his stateside creditors. It was suggested by Prince Talleyrand,
the wily nobleman/archbishop whose diplomatic career began with Louis XVI, then Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Charles X, wrote that Swan was actually in bankruptcy at the time he left the United States. In Paris, Swan sought out Lafayette, Rochambeau, and other well-situated French noblemen whom he had met and befriended during their mutual involvement in the American Revolution.
His relationships with these liberal aristocrats undoubtedly directed his choice of France as a venue for beginning anew. Albeit of Scottish birth, he was unlikely to have had equivalent connections in United Kingdom that so recently had been an enemy of the United States. Moreover, the Colonial Tory population who fled to England by reason of the Revolution were still very much “licking” their American wounds due to their loss of status, homes, and wealth. Needless to say, the Tories were actively hostile to new United States citizens who sought to tread on their reluctantly new home ground.
Swan’s French friends opened doors for him to the highest French levels during the last days of the Ancien Regime, enabling him to establish a mercantile business under the name of Swan D’Allarde et Cie. Swan most likely was introduced to his partner, Pierre-Gilbert Leory D’Allarde, an aristocrat, by one of his French noble acquaintances, when prior to 1792, such an alliance was still of value in France and elsewhere in Europe. The partnership initially began selling American food products, gunpowder, as well as saltpeter used in making gunpowder to the French army. Historian John Goldworth Alger writes that in 1792, the French were exhorted by their new leaders to scrape the floors of cellars, stables, and sheds in order to collect saltpeter tobe turned over to the new government and used in the manufacture of gunpowder.
France had suffered several years of harsh draughts and consequently poor harvests requiring importation of basic foods. The real hunger suffered both by both rural and urban poor ultimately lit the fuse for the fiery uprising of French masses in 1789, enflamed by the inspirational tracts penned by liberal writers of the time. During 1789, Swan is known to have delivered large consignments of wheat and other foods from the Americas to stave that hunger. It is not clear what happened to Swan D’Allarde et Cie, however, it is likely that D’Allarde, as a nobleman, became a persona non grata after the revolution began in earnest, and was fortunate to keep his head in the new turmoil.
Incidentally, Swan, being a man of broad commercial vision, began a distillery for the production of rum outside of Paris in Passy that previously had been imported from England. I am not aware of any other rum distillery in Continental France in that or earlier periods. Also, a brother of Swan’s named David whose name I had never came across otherwise than in Swan’s will, joined Swan in the publication of bibles in France and, possibly, in the rum distillery.
As the French Revolution advanced, the increasingly radical individuals who directed the new Republic leftward into anarchy and terror succeeded the liberal aristocrats who initially fostered Swan’s fledging business in Paris. Swan dealt deftly with the new Jacobin ruling caste, probably because they accepted him as a surviving co-participant of a revolution against Royal (British) tyranny. But more likely, they recognized in Swan a “neutral” who proved since he arrived in France that he had access to foreign sources of supplies that that France so desperately needed and, more importantly, knew how to bring goods safely into France without interception by the fiercely-effective British sea blockade. France was precluded from bringing in needed supplies by safer, overland routes, as it was entirely surrounded on land by hostile neighboring nations.
Although Swan’s initial ventures in France were not unnoticed, it was only in the 1790’s that he gained a broad reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for his successful trading pursuits. At that time, the US officially was interested in stepping up the export abroad (and especially to France to which it remained deeply indebted) of its bountiful agricultural (rice, pork, beef, cornmeal, etc.) and other products (gunpowder, saltpeter, timber, leather, etc.) for whatever else France couldn’t produce in sufficient quantities within its borders. A letter from James Monroe to James Madison
dated September 20, 1794, attests to Swan’s notoriety. Monroe recommends Swan as a merchant that resided in France for “some years” and was returning to the US–
“for the purpose of purchasing and shipping to this country the production of ours and relies much on the advances to be made by our gov’t for the means. He will be the sole agent in that line of this republic in America…. I beg you to the attentive to him in regard to it.”
In a letter dated November 15, 1795, Prince Talleyrand in New York, relies to a request for information by “what American houses were furnished the supplies that this vast continent has sent to France”. Talleyrand replied that the principal agent of the French is a Scotsman became an American, who was bankrupt in Boston some years ago, and whose name is Swan.”
It certainly must have helped that Swan spoke French. The French language was not entirely unknown in colonial and early Federal Massachusetts, but, for the most part, was spoken or known only by diplomats, other highly educated individuals with university degrees or those of French ancestry.
The latter were generally French Protestants, the Huguenots, who were persecuted in France in the 16th Century under Francis I and again in 1685 by Louis XIV, many of whom had emigrated to New York and Virginia, but some also to Massachusetts including the family of the Patriot and silversmith Paul Revere. It is uncertain how Swan learned French, not falling into any if the categories above. Thomas Jefferson
most probably spoke French well, having studied the language at William and Mary College in Virginia.
Benjamin Franklin, who spent several years in France, believed that he spoke French but admitted he didn’t pay much attention to grammar or accent. The French found his conversation baffling, albeit charming. Gouveneur Morris from Philadelphia who was the US Ambassador to France
at the end of the Ancien Regime and until 1793 spoke French; his mother came from a prominent Huguenot family called Gouveneur, hence his first name that had nothing to do with his having been a governor. I have not been able to ascertain if Swan spoke French well, but that was probably a prerequisite in his business dealings with the various French governmental authorities notwithstanding a French partner.
In recognition of Swan’s prowess to import essential supplies to France, he was appointed in 1784 by the Committee of Public Safety, the bizarre name of the de facto body that governed France, as an official agent of France for the purchase of goods in America.
The French had some dealings with Swan and were aware of his ability to bring goods safely into France without seizure by the British blockage. However, Revolutionary France was at a critical stage, being close to bankruptcy and desperately needing food and war supplies and had experienced unsatisfactory dealings with some American shippers who either disappeared with their cargoes or were unable to evade the British ships. The Commission des Subsistances was a new revolutionary department set up, inter alia, to obtain vitally needed goods, Its head, Jean-Claude Picquet, introduced Swan to a Swiss named Johann Caspar Schweitzer
who had moved to Paris in 1786. Schweitzer had developed strong ties with the ruling Jacobins and, especially, with Count Mirabeau
whom Schweitzer had met shortly after arriving in France. Although Schweitzer had inherited substantial wealth, he was a committed revolutionary who had chosen to live in Paris in order to become involved in the city’s heady pre-revolutionary milieu. In fact, he was adored by the Jacobins, notwithstanding his capitalist exploits and high style of living.
As a means of monitoring Swan, the French Government “suggested” that Swan form a business alliance with Schweitzer as his partner in order to run the import/export business; the resulting partnership was called Swan & Schweitzer. Swan is said to have bristled at this business relationship imposed upon him and once he arrived in America equipped with French funds for making the required purchases of products to bring to France, he ignored his partner. Probably to disguise its operations from the British blockade also operated under the name of Jones & Gaspard.
The Revolutionary French fiat currency, the assignats,
was backed by recently confiscated Church and Royal properties as well as the properties of noblemen who fled from France, the so-called émigrés. When first issued in 1789, it was more of a promissory note bearing 5 % interest per annum. However, its value was greatly discounted or even disregarded by reason of the new Republic’s instability and its relentless printing of the notes. It was transformed in 1790 into a non-interest bearing paper currency but that had little effect on its perceived value. Very few foreign suppliers were willing to take assignats in payment for valuable commodities that France required for its survival. Swan wouldn’t either; however, he was willing to barter the indispensable goods that he obtained outside of France in exchange for luxury items that France had in abundance and still could produce such as silks, brandies, etc., but were non-essential and “politically incorrect,” or even life threatening for the French to enjoy at that time.
The French Revolutionary government had tried to raise hard currencies by running auction sales of former Royal, Church and noble properties, largely comprising decorative arts confiscated by the new governing authority. The sales at the Palace of Versailles alone ran one year or more even though Louis XVI sent what is described as masses of furniture and decorations from Versailles to fit out the largely empty Palace of the Tuileries at one end of the Louvre where the Royal Family was taken unwillingly from Versailles to reside by the revolutionaries in 1790 at the outset of the Revolution. Such sales were replicated at the chateaux of Marly, Fontainebleau, St, Cloud and other prior Royal as well as noble abodes who owners had left to flee abroad.
The effect of these mass sales was to create a market glutted with astonishingly good decorative pieces sufficient to fill at bargain prices any empty corners in the palaces of English milords, German graffs, and Russian princes et al. The idea of selling these goods on a less wholesale basis made more economic sense to the Revolutionary Government than placing them on seemingly perpetual and overflowing auction blocks. That Swan was willing to accept such forms of payment which was the only expenditure that France could well afford made him the right man at the right time to provide food and other essential stuffs to France. There is no certainty that Swan himself developed this concept; Possibly, it was suggested by his wife or even Count Mirabeau, the aristocrat who led the Jacobins rulers.
The amazing quality of the French goods that Swan accepted in payment insured their strong market value in countries not undergoing the same turmoil as France. These countries then included the fledging United States that by 1790 had begun to shake off its post war doldrums. The new Constitution the Republic gave the Federal Government the right to impose excise type taxes. It also begun to prosper by reason of its savvy business community, its natural resources, and its endless ocean frontage, and safe harbors. Finally, its sharp businessmen were untrammeled by the severe trade restraints previously imposed upon them by their English master. For example, prior to the War of Independence, England dictated that colonial manufacturers of textiles could not sell their goods outside of the colony where manufactured, in order to protect manufacture in the mother country. Howard Rice, in an article entitled, “James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796”, writes:
“…. there was in the United States a market for fine furniture, statues, mirrors, clocks, and other articles
from the former mansions of royalty and the nobility.
Silks, taffetas, satins, laces, now scorned by the good French Republicans as the livery of tyrants, might still be sold in America. He (Swan) even specified the colors preferred in taffetas…. There was, too, a demand for silk stockings…. fine wines and brandies….”
While clearly Swan brought French luxury good to the United States for sale generally as well as to furnish his own residence, there appears to be no information as to how the goods arrived in the US, i.e., what ships bore them, what ports did they enter, whether the ships were owned or chartered by Swan himself or carried by independent shippers, what losses or damages occurred, etc. Or is there any hard information as to how Swan sold the furniture in the United States or elsewhere that he didn’t keep for his own use. However, there is statement in a memorandum in the MFA’s Swan archives to the effect that advertisements were placed in the 1795 Boston Chronicle for the sale of French furniture, presumably by Swan.
The Talleyrand letter of November 15,1795 describes Swan as having “very considerable funds at this disposal” and sub-agents who “travel for him”. He adds that—
“…Mr. Swan is now engaged in fitting out two expeditions
for India (from the United States?) where he believes that a
large number of commodities that he has exported from
France, will be saleable. He has a great deal of wine, brandy
and an immense supply of jewels. It appears that all the
jewelry found or seized in domiciliary visits, has been
instructed to him to sell…”
John Goldworth Alger provides the only specific details as to Swan’s actual cargos that he brought to France:
- On January 15, 1793, Swan agreed to supply 30,000 barrels of pork and 100 hides (from cattle, horses or other?) from Brazil to France;
- On March 14th, 1794, he contracted to send 12 or 15 cargoes
to France of American corn and pork. In this venture, he was partnered with a man called Huger whose “hospitality Lafayette had enjoyed on his first landing in America”.
Another intriguing note as to other goods under Swan’s aegis, there is a reference by Swan in a letter to Thomas Aspinwall dated March 5, 1830, wherein he offers as additional collateral for a requested loan “a catalogue of 136 paintings in the hands of Pitcairn, Brodie…at Hamburghe which I received from the Government in 1794 out of the Emigrants property”. The “Government” he refers to is undoubtedly that of the French Republic and the “Emigrants” being the French nobles who forfeited their properties in France when they fled the Terror to save their heads. In a subsequent letter to Aspinwall, Swan writes that the paintings were disposed of without any indication of how or to whom. I have been able to establish that the specified merchant firm of Scot nationals, Pitcairn, Brodie, did operate in Hamburg, Germany during the relevant period, but have been unable to establish the nature of its relationship with Swan, the identity of the paintings or who obtained possession of them. It is intriguing to speculate what those 136 paintings comprised and, if extant, to whom they now belong.
Swan’s business in France flourished and once he became an official agent of the French government, he received from the Revolutionary Government gold bullion melted down from seized ecclesiastical paraphernalia such as vessels, reliquaries, candlesticks, etc., to be used for payment for goods essential to France’s survival in addition to decorative arts. We know that Swan did obtain French decorative arts legitimately in payment as a supplier of needed goods to the French Revolutionary Government, but whether he received such goods as a consignee or as final payment isn’t entirely clear. However, an unflattering tale is told of Swan in Herman Wesley Small’s 1898 book, “The History of Swan’s Island, Maine”. The author states that Swan induced a group of French nobles to emigrate to the United States (perhaps to his West Virginia land) and his ships were stowed with their –
“…valuables in advance of their embarkation. As they perished in the Reign of Terror before being able to board, their goods were never reclaimed”.
Another quip in the same vein about Swan is that—
“Between Madame Guillotine, who took off their heads, and Swan who took off their trunks, little was left of those unfortunate Frenchmen.”
The story is repeated at least in one other book, “The Town of Roxbury: Its Memorable Persons and Places (1878)” and elsewhere, giving it some degree of credibility although possibly all versions had their origins in a single source antagonistic to Swan.
Another legend of how Swan acquired Royal French furniture involves him in a plot to rescue Marie Antoinette and take her to Wiscasset, Maine
aboard his ship, “Sally” which had previously belonged to his father-in-law. The Sally, captained by Stephen Cough of Wiscasset, was captured in French waters by a French warship and impounded in France. Clough’s daughter who had been on board the Sally appealed to the American minister to France for the ship’s release and somehow met Prince Talleyrand along the way (although he was clearly staying in London at the time with fellow émigrés and would risked death if found in France). Somehow, Miss Clough was placed in the same prison as Marie Antoinette and had access to the Queen in her own cell.
Some unidentified party told Miss Clough that he would obtain release of the ship if it would take a small group of people to America. Miss Clough and her father agreed to this. According to the tale, the imprisoned Queen was to be a member of that group with some of her furniture and six angora cats, all of which were stowed aboard the Sally in advance of her arrival on board. Ultimately, either the Queen refused to leave without her children or the plot was uncovered, or never existed, but, in any event, the Queen as we know never left France.
There was in fact at that time a foiled rescue plot whereby a nobleman, the Comte de Rougeville, somehow was admitted to the Queen’s quarters at the Concierge and dropped a carnation at her feet. Upon picking it up, she found a note on paper tucked into the petals of the flower that set out a plan for her rescue. According to one version of the “Carnation Plot”
described in a four-volume series called “The French Revolution”, by George H. Allen (1925), the Queen mistakenly believed that one of her jailers, Gilbert by name, was an accomplice to the rescue plan. She gave him a torn shred of paper on which she wrote her response to Rougeville in a code of pinpricks. The treacherous Gilbert passed her reply on to the wife of the Administrator of the Concierge. There is, however, no mention in the Allen book of Clough, Swan or any other American as being involved in that particular plot (although Gouverneur Morris is associated with another rescue plot). The sad scrap pin pricked paper is now in the Archives National in Paris and a facsimile of the torn paper is included as an exhibit in the Allen book. (FN) The discovery of this rescue plot led to the Queen’s placement in more secure quarters, the “Cachot de la Reine” or the Queen’s Dungeon, from which of course she never left except to be killed. In 1816, the Cachot was converted by the then King of the French Louis XVIII, (the first younger brother of Louis XVI to succeed to the throne after Napoleon), into the exquisite but deeply pathetic “Expiatory Chapel”, its walls painted in black with an allover pattern of falling white tears.
A number of sources recite variations on the “Sally” rescue tale and state that the ship did not sail with the Queen, but took Prince Talleyrand and the Queen’s six angora cats and furniture to Maine. The Queen’s cats escaped upon arrival in Wiscasset, mated with local shorthaired cats and produced the large and furry Maine Coon Cat.
The Queen’s furniture in the Sally’s hold was then divided between Swan and Talleyrand. What the Prince could have done with the furniture is equally mysterious; but, if indeed if he did receive a share of Royal furniture, he would have sold it as being basically without funds during his sojourn he was in the United States. Perhaps. We do know, however, that Swan was a very resourceful man and did have some of Marie Antoinette’s furniture.
One continuing puzzle about Swan and the furniture which he sold or kept for his own use is that there is not real information as to how, when and where it arrived in the United States. Also, while Talleyrand did go to the United States at that time, it is most likely that he left from England where he had previously sought safety for his own head as he had been designated an émigré by the Revolutionary French government. Émigrés were French nobles who escaped France during the revolutionary period whose properties remaining in France, i.e., chateaux, agricultural lands, mines, furniture, and the like, were confiscated to finance the financial challenged new regime. Returning to France without removal from that category resulted generally in death. Talleyrand was fortunate to have his name removed from that death sentence list in 1795 and did return to France in 1796.
In any event, stories as to the presence of furniture once belonging to Marie Antoinette abounded in the State of Maine for many years. We know that Swan’s friend, Henry Know did buy French furniture from Swan for his house in Thomaston, Maine. Fort Knox is named after Henry Knox.
While Swan was in France, he also actively and successfully marketed his West Virginia land to French and other European nobles and even to some German royals, all troubled by their proximity to the French revolutionary spirit and looking to a possible safe haven in America. This group included, inter alia, the King of Wittenberg and a Prince von Furstenberg, an ancestor of the first husband of the clothing designer Diane von Furstenberg.
Responding to Swan’s undoubtedly effective pitch of “green and pleasant lands” on which to reestablish fiefdoms free from the shadow of the guillotine, these Europeans bought land they would never see without having any real assurance as to actual size, boundaries and locations. As mentioned above, they like all other of Swan’s land investors lost their respective chemises in the deal and they and their heirs were involved in the ensuing avalanche of law suits. Swan was one of several Americans who bought large tracts of vacant land and marketed the property to Europeans. One man in particular, Joel Barlow,
like Swan enmeshed several generations of Europeans in litigation that ended in total loss in the twentieth century.
Mrs. Swan accompanied her husband to France in 1787 and remained there at least during the initial stages of the Revolutionary period. It is likely that she participated effectively in the choice of what was offered by France in barter to her husband and may have stipulated what would be kept for their personal use in Massachusetts. A writer named William Dana Orcutt wrote that when in Paris Mrs. Swan purchased “draperies from the Tuileries palace as well as a Gobelin tapestry that was hung in the Dorchester house”. There is no indication that Swan had developed an aesthetic taste for the decorative arts other being appreciative of their value as readily saleable commodities. Mrs. Swan is generally described as having been an elegant, cosmopolitan and erudite lady as well as a superb hostess, all of which traits are often accompanied by having an interest and some elevated level of taste in furnishing. At some before mid-1794 while the French Queen was still alive, Mrs. Swan left France to go to London and then returned to Boston. It is claimed that passersby in London were startled by Mrs. Swan’s resemblance to Marie Antoinette who was then imprisoned in Paris, enough to think that the unfortunate Queen might have escaped. The portrait of Mrs. Swan by Gilbert Stuart shows a highly self-possessed, dark haired woman with a distinctive “beakiness” and what was then referred to as an “ample bosom”.
Aside from those three prominent aspects, there would seem to be little in her appearance to be confused with Marie Antoinette. I would presume that h
er lofty carriage and richness of dress still available for foreigners to purchase in Paris during the early 1790’s were certainly arresting enough for people to stare without her being a clone of the Queen. After returning to Boston, she probably never went back to France. Some tracts on Swan state that Mrs. Swan joined her husband in France not out of any conjugal affection for him, but to get her hands on valuable decorative pieces to replace monies that he misappropriated from her inheritance for his own benefit.
Although Swan traveled to and from France from his original commencement of business there in 1787, he returned accompanied by his partner Schweitzer to the United States in 1797 from Europe in order to consolidate his new ventures. It is likely that the French Government requested that Schweitzer go to American with Swan to keep an eye on the wily gentleman. They opened an office in Philadelphia, then the capitol of the fledgling United States. By the end of 1795, he boasted that he had sent 105 shiploads of goods to France and only 17 were captured by the predatory British navy. Swan engineered this success by his crafty “neutralization” of the ships bound for France; that is, using the names only of American suppliers for cargo wherever collected, American crews, shipboards festooned with American flags and documentation showing false ports of call that never included any in France. Swan in letter dated October 11th, 1794 from Paris to James Monroe requests Madison’s help in obtaining for him a new US passport that would show his name as James Keadie (his mother’s maiden name) so as to evade capture by a British blockage vessel searching the ship he would use for returning to the United States. The reason he gives for this subterfuge is that his own name was “marked” by the British as the agent of France and the British interest in bringing him into England–
“in order to baulk the business for which I am going (to the US), and this is most likely to be done on my voyage, as it is the Marine only that is instructed to stop vessels which have been fitted out by me.”
His request was never granted even though he offered to give up this new passport to US Secretary of State or destroy it upon arriving safely in the United States. Rice’s article also states that, as additional cover, Swan used a Danish company to insure his cargo bound for France and contracted with a firm in Hamburg, Germany called Lubbert & Dumas to pay the insurance premiums so as to further disguise his presence. This latter arrangement was one that Swan would one day come to regret.
Swan enjoyed a reputation both in France and in the United States for getting things done. He is aptly described as a man who “had an uncanny ability to be in be in the right place at the right time”. In 1795 was given authority to negotiate its behalf the long delayed repayment of the United State’s revolutionary war debt to France in the new and then increasingly strong US currency. Rice states that the ability of the French Government also to obtain credit for its purchases in the United States depended upon Swan’s business acumen and reputation. However, no less a personage than James Monroe in a letter dated June 30, 1795 who requested James Madison in the prior year to help Swan describes Swan as “a corrupt, unprincipled rascal.” Also, Gouvenor Morris who enjoyed a good reputation and whom Swan sought to join him in one of his ventures bringing American wheat to France in 1794 refused, stating that Swan was a “schemer”. In all, Swan seemed to be the type of person who could be relied upon to accomplish his goals, but at the same time one whom one would have to watch carefully so that he didn’t take off with other than his own share.
To be continued in James Swan: Part Three of Three.