Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from James Swan, 31 January 1788

From James Swan

Le Havre, 31 Jan. 1788. Apologizes for not sooner paying the “respect which I owe you as a Gentleman … as the Representative of the Sovereignty of my country”; arrived in last packet; his wife and children will follow him in May or June; until their arrival, will stay around Le Havre, Rouen, and Caen attending to business matters. Encloses some thoughts “put together in much haste at the commencement of the insurrection in Massachusetts”; as they have been of some use, is less concerned about their form.

RC (DLC); 2 p.; endorsed. Enclosure: A copy of National Arithmetick: or, Observations on the finances 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, Boston, [1786]. TJ’s copy (DLC) had a presentation inscription on the title-page, but most of this, including the author’s name, was cut away by the binder. It also contains numerous corrections in ink in the text, a fact which probably explains Swan’s remark about the hasty composition and the form of the piece. See Sowerby, description begins Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby, Washington, 1952–53 description ends No. 3620.

James Swan was a Scottish-born merchant from Boston who had been a zealous Son of Liberty and one of the “Mohawks” that staged the Boston Tea Party of 1773. He had risen prosperously during the Revolution, but had over-extended his commercial and land ventures after the war and had come to France to rebuild his fortune. He wrote a memorial on Franco-American commerce at the suggestion of Lafayette during the latter’s visit to America in 1784. This memorial was translated by the French consul at Boston, Létombe, who forwarded a copy in his dispatch of 1 Mch. 1787 (both in Arch. Aff. Etr., Paris, Mémoires et Documents, E.-U., xv; see Swan to TJ, 1 Mch. 1788). This memorial was concerned with the causes that had hindered the growth of trade between France and the United States and suggested means of promoting it. Swan enlarged his manuscript and published it in book form during his stay in France under the title Causes qui se sont opposées aux progrès du commerce, entre la France, et les Etats-Unis de l’Amérique. Avec les moyens de l’accélérer, et la comparaison de la dette nationale de l’Angleterre, de la France, et des Etats-Unis; en six lettres adressées à Monsieur le Marquis de la Fayette (Paris, 1790). He later became a purchasing agent in America for the French Republic; his activities in this area and other phases of his colorful career are summed up in a graphic portrayal by Howard C. Rice, Jr., “James Swan: Agent of the French Republic, 1794–1796,” New England Quarterly, x (1937), 464–86. Swan spent twenty-two years in a debtor’s prison (1808–1830), presumably because he would not permit his wife, who lived in a handsome manner in a residence at Dorchester built in the style of a French chateau, to pay a small debt that he regarded as unjust. A few weeks after addressing the present letter to TJ, Swan wrote the following revealing lines to his friend Henry Knox: “Wherever I be, and in whatever situation, if I cannot be acquainted with the first in the place, I make it a rule not to be acquainted at all—as I have said before, I find it much more agreeable, and cheaper—and besides, is supporting a character of rank I maintained at home” (same, p. 466). TJ’s copy of Swan’s book, which he saw and commented on in MS form, is in DLC (Sowerby, description begins Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, compiled with annotations by E. Millicent Sowerby, Washington, 1952–53 description ends No. 3608; see TJ to Swan, 23 Mch. 1789). See also TJ to Limozin, 30 July 1788.

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