James Swan entered American historical lore on December 16, 1773, when he and a few others participated in what became known as the Boston Tea Party, but he has a place in early U.S. business history as well.
While I was doing some research for the Business of Congress blog post which featured “business” oriented material from Thomas Jefferson’s collection, I kept seeing the name Swan and wondered who this gentleman was and why Jefferson included items written by him in his collection. After a bit of research I discovered his full name was James Swan and he was indeed, an interesting man.
James Swan was born in Fifeshire, Scotland in 1754 and moved to Boston about 1765. He was an apprentice at a mercantile house, and by the time of the Revolutionary War he was becoming quite prosperous. Prior to the war, he joined the Sons of Liberty, and at the age of 19 in 1793, participated in the Boston Tea Party. He was later wounded at Bunker Hill. After the war he served in Massachusetts state government, including the legislature and the Massachusetts Board of War.  He knew many of the people whose names students of American history would be familiar with – Marquis de Lafayette, John Hancock, and George Washington. One of his oldest friends was Henry Knox, who later became the first Secretary of War.
But Swan was more than just a patriot, he was also involved in business. After the war he used his experience working in a mercantile house to establish the firm Swan & Schweizer in Philadelphia and eventually he became an agent for the government of France purchasing provisions like lumber, rice, flour, beef, pork, cornmeal, etc. through sub-agents located in principle ports in the United States. He also acted on behalf of the French government to liquidate the debt the government of the United States owed France, culminating in the 1795 agreement to pay the $2,024,899 debt.
He later returned to Paris seeking repayment of a debt the French owed to him (his was the largest debt “due to the Citizens of the United States by the French Republic prior to the 30th Sept. 1800” mentioned in the Louisiana Purchase treaty). Unfortunately, like many businessmen of the day, his fortunes rose high and fell quite low, and as a consequence, he spent about 22 years in debtors prison. He died in 1830, possibly while he was still in debtors’ prison.
The Library of Congress has several items by James Swan including those in Thomas Jefferson’s collection that started me on this quest:
- Swan sur la commerce entre la France et Etats Unis (p. 478) p. 463
- Tracts on American Commerce, 1783-7, to wit Sheffield 1st Ed., Ruston, Swan, Coxe, 8º which includes the title Swan on the Finances of Massachusetts (p. 485) p. 468
- An address to the President, Senate, and House of Representatives of the United States, on the means of creating a national paper by loan offices which shall replace that of the discredited banks, and supercede the use of gold and silver coin.
- Causes qui se sont opposées aux progrès du commerce
- A dissuasion to Great-Britain and the Colonies, from the slave trade to Africa. Shewing the contradiction this trade bears, both to laws divine and provincial; the disadvantages arising from it, and advantages from abolishing it, both to Europe and Africa, particularly to Britain and the plantations. Also shewing how to put this trade to Africa on a just and lawful footing.
- A dissuasion to Great-Britain and the Colonies, from the slave-trade to Africa. Shewing the injustice thereof, &c. (Rev. and abridged.)
- National arithmetick, or, Observations on the finance of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts : with some hints respecting financiering and future taxation in this state, tending to render the publick contributions more easy to the people / by a late member of the general court.
 Dictionary of American Biography. Vol 9, page 234.
 Howard C. Rice. James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796. The New England Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1937), pp. 464-486.