“The Great Air of Liberty Choked Him”: Finance, Freedom, and the Legendary Death of Colonel James Swan

By Erika Vause

On July 31, 1830, three days after a revolutionary crowd liberated the 228 incarcerated debtors of Paris’s Sainte-Pélagie prison, Colonel James Swan tried to return to confinement. Reputedly once among the United States’ richest men, for twenty-two years Swan had refused on principle to pay a debt to his former business partner Herman Lubbert. Swan even threatened his own wife and children with disinheritance if they made arrangements on his behalf. Now, after over two decades in prison, the American was free. He embraced his old comrade the Marquis de Lafayette on the steps of the Hôtel de Ville. But then, in the words of former Paris prison inspector Louis-Mathurin Moreau-Christophe, “the great air of liberty suffocated him.”[1] On his way to surrender to the guards at Sainte-Pélagie, Swan collapsed, dying shortly afterwards. So ended the life of the longest-serving debt prisoner in post-revolutionary France.

Portrait of James Swan.
Gilbert Stuart, 1795 “James Swan,” Boston Museum of Fine Arts Wikimedia Commons

Such, at least, was the story passed down in newspapers and histories on both sides of the Atlantic. Legends easily accumulated around Swan’s colorful life. After immigrating from Scotland to the American colonies as a boy, Swan penned an abolitionist pamphlet at 17, participated in the Boston Tea Party, and served in both the Continental Army of the American Revolution and as a war contractor of the revolutionary French government. He made speculative land deals on territories reaching from Kentucky to Maine. In 1795, he paid down the entire US war debt to France, buying more than $2 million and selling it off in smaller shares to mainly British investors.[2] Some said Swan had masterminded an abortive attempt to smuggle Marie Antoinette to his properties in Maine that ended up inadvertently introducing the Queen’s cats to the Americas (the reputed origin of the Maine Coon breed).[3] Rumors swirled around the American colonel’s lavish life in prison – mistresses and wild parties, an illegitimate child, a creditor whom Swan would dismiss with a flip of his hand. Without a proper biography of Swan, separating facts from fictions about his colorful life is difficult. His ironic death, however, seems perfectly suited to his larger-than-life personality. But what truth lies behind this tale? And why, regardless of its truth, might this story have spoken so deeply to the public of its time?

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 Lubbert, a fact reflected in dozens of legal briefs filed both by Swan and his creditor. French legislators had voted to reestablish debt imprisonment in 1797 after its 1793 abolition, following a general outcry against the scandalous behavior of debtors during the massive inflation of the assignat (a revolutionary paper money originally printed on the expected proceeds of confiscated land auctions). In 1806, speculation by war-time financiers had brought France to the brink of economic crash, leaving Napoleon Bonaparte little inclined to treat foreign “speculators” like Swan with leniency. 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.[4]  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.”[5] 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. [6]

Did Swan escape prison in 1830? Did he then choose to return? Reporting Lubbert’s death in September 1830, several newspapers indicated that Swan had been released during the July Revolution, when crowds had freed debtors and political prisoners. There is at least one contemporary report that Swan had indeed attempted to return to Sainte-Pélagie afterwards.[7] Yet, Parisian periodicals, which had followed Swan’s decades-long legal battles to obtain his release, were largely silent about Swan’s whereabouts after 1829. Reports on the September 1830 death of Lubbert, described as a creditor who “had sworn to detain his debtor until death,” mentioned that Lubbert had “died first,” indicating Swan was alive at this point, over a month after his liberation.[8] Since the archival record of Swan’s death was almost certainly among those lost to fire, it is unclear when he died. However, the Nouvelle France reported the death of an “M. Swan” at “22 rue de Provence” on March 19, 1831, a date further supported by a syndicated obituary two months later in an American newspaper.[9]

From the admittedly patchy evidence, Swan’s story appears far less epic than the legend. Yet, the myth of Swan’s ironic demise emerged not long after his death. During the debates on debt imprisonment in April 1832, legislators recalled the fate of the “unfortunate John [sic] Swan” who had “spent twenty-two years in prison and died a month after being released.”[10] In 1834, the Nouveau tableau de Paris au XIXe siècle declared that, upon liberation, Swan had immediately “gone to embrace his old friend Lafayette, and it was the steps of the Hotel-de-Ville that accomplished for the prisoner that prediction of his doctors: an hour of liberty killed that body accustomed to the miasma of the jail. The next day, the old man closed his eyes on our land that had been barbarous to him for so long.”[11] In 1836, Moreau-Christophe dedicated a section of his influential De l’état actuel des prisons en France to debt imprisonment, including Swan’s story as symbolic of its absurdity.  By 1840, Moreau-Christophe’s anecdotes had been further embellished by Maurice Barthélémy in Histoire politique et anecdotique des prisons de la Seine.[12] Barthélémy’s account was then repeated, sometimes plagiarized, by subsequent journalists and historians in both the United States and France.

But why? I argue that the appeal of this inaccurate story reflects the anxieties of the era itself. Swan’s death occurred in the midst of the prison reform movement, as well as calls to abolish debtors’ prisons. The image of a righteous man wasting away in prison as the result of an implacable feud evoked the arbitrary tyranny of the ancient regime that fascinated the nineteenth-century Romantic imagination as much as it appalled its liberal understanding. It conjured the ghosts of the Bastille, the man in the iron mask, the lettres de cachet once used to lock up inconvenient relatives and targets of vendettas. It demonstrated the endurance of the “tyrannical” old regime into the enlightened and liberal nineteenth century. For prison reformers like Moreau-Christophe, Swan’s supposed preference for a prison cell over the “air of liberty” reflected the perversity of this “outdated” model of the prison, which offered a refuge for libertinism rather than a deprivation of liberties.

More broadly, the legend of Swan’s death reflects the importance of honor in the revolutionary era. On both sides of the Atlantic, political thinkers and statesmen worried that revolution would lead to unrestrained freedom resulting in absolute selfishness and “license.” Even as they denounced tyranny, revolutionary intellectuals also saw perceived inferiors, whether women, people of color, or the poor, as incapable of the self-control upon which rested social order and civilization. In part, they tied restraint to the exercise of rationality. However, the most important separation between  “liberty” and “libertinism” derived from the masculine habitus of honor. “Honor” or “virtue” provided an unspoken code for the revolutionary ruling class that legitimized their position in the absence of caste. Monetary transactions held a contradictory position in contemporaneous understandings of honor. On one hand, honor was deemed inimical to financial self-interest and calculation. On the other, honor was absolutely critical for economic actors to negotiate, and credit derived largely from a merchant’s honor. When Swan attached his imprisonment to “principles much superior to interest,” he was asserting his creditworthiness, proving that he was neither a swindler nor a rogue. For Swan to then return to debtors’ prison showed him to be a man who respected the limitations set by contract and by honor, even if he refused the legitimacy of the debt for which he was held.

The attribution of Swan’s death to “liberty” draws us still deeper into the early nineteenth-century’s anxieties about unrestrained freedom. Swan spent his youth fighting for “liberty,” engaged in causes from abolitionism to the American and French Revolutions. For such a man to be “suffocated” by liberty after becoming accustomed to the “miasma of the jail” reads like a heavy-handed parable of the tumultuous decades following the French Revolution. Viewed one way, it reflects a certain perverse nostalgia for a world of more constraint and more certainty and a keen awareness of the difficulties of surviving in the new one. Viewed another way, Swan’s story meditates on the failure of the revolutionary age to eliminate all unfreedoms – a failure not accidental but rather essential to the emergence of the modern world. Debt and imprisonment shadowed and tethered the rise of modern capitalism and liberal democracy, developments often read as stories of liberation. The myth of Swan’s death invited contemporaries to participate in an ephemeral vision of revolution capable of finally eliminating all fetters. While the aging freedom-fighter and financier briefly escapes the pull of debt and the carceral system, he is ultimately forced to succumb to their power. Read in this way, this legend reveals profound anxieties about the role of unfreedom in liberal democracies that continue to this day.


Erika Vause is Assistant Professor of History at St. John’s University in New York City and the author of In the Red and in the Black: Debt, Dishonor and the Law in France Between Revolutions (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018).

Title Image: Victor Adam, “The Debtor’s Release,” 1824-25.

Further Reading:

Eleanor Pearson DeLorme, “The Swan Collection: Four Portraits by Gilbert Stuart,” Winterthur Portfolio  14, no. 4 (Winter 1979): 361-395.

William Reddy, The Invisible Code: Honor and Sentiment in Postrevolutionary France, 1814-1848 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997). 

Howard Rice, “James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796”  New England Quarterly  10, n. 3 (Sept 1937): 464-486.

Craig Smith, American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018). 

Erika Vause, In the Red and in the Black: Debt, Dishonor and the Law in France Between Revolutions (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018).

Endnotes:

[1] Louis-Maturin Moreau-Christophe, Le Constitutionnel, December 25 1836, 5. 

[2] Howard C. Rice, “James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796” New England Quarterly  10, n. 3 (Sept 1937): 477-480.

[3]  “Let Them Eat Lobster: Marie Antoinette Plans to Move to Maine,” New England Historical Society, accessed Apil 21, 2021 https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/let-eat-lobster-marie-antoinette-plans-move-maine/

[4] See Erika Vause, In the Red and in the Black: Debt, Dishonor and the Law (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018). 

[5] James Swan, “A Messieurs de la Chambre des Députés” (1817), 4.

[6] See Herman Lubbert, Mémoire pour le sieur Herman Lubbert,… contre James Swan, de Boston,… détenu pour dettes à Ste Pélagie, demandant, pour la quatrième fois, son élargissement, par bénéfice d’insolvabilité légale, au moyen du laps de cinq ans (Paris: Imprimerie Porthmann, 1818). 

[7] Le Tocsin National, 6 Aug. 1830, 3. 

[8] For instance, Gazette des Tribunaux,  2 Sept 1830.

[9] La Nouvelle France, 22 March 1831, 3; Phenix Gazette, May 25 1831, 2.

[10] Journal des debats literraires 6 April 1832, 2.

[11] Nouveau tableau de Paris au XIXe siècle (Paris: Librairie de Madame Charles Béchet, 1834) 2: 132.

[12] Maurice Barthélémy, Histoire politique et anecdotique des prisons de la Seine (Paris: Guillaumin), 63-64.

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