Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Oswald, Richard

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OSWALD, RICHARD (1705–1784), merchant and politician, born in Scotland about 1705, was the second son of the Rev. James or George Oswald, minister of Dunnett in Caithness. In his younger days he was an unsuccessful candidate for the mastership of Thurso parochial school, with a salary of 100l. Scots, and took his disappointment so much to heart that he left that part in disgust and never returned to it (Sinclair, Statistical Account of Scotland, xx. 533-4). He then moved to Glasgow, and, as agent to his cousins, gained some thousands of pounds by prize-money, with which he removed to London (Carlyle, Autobiography, p. 87). At this time he was often confined to his house by sore eyes, yet passed much time in reading. Carlyle describes him as 'a man of great knowledge and ready conversation' (ib. p. 356). He was a contractor for the supply of the troops serving in the seven years war, and, being dissatisfied with the conduct of the business by his agents, went to Germany as commissary-general to the forces of the Duke of Brunswick, who bestowed on him very high praise for his services. For many years he was engaged in business in America, when he acquired a great knowledge of commercial affairs, but he afterwards settled as a merchant at Philpot Lane in the city of London. Through his marriage in 1750 to Mary, only daughter and heiress of Alexander Ramsay of Jamaica, he possessed considerable estates in America and the West Indies, and his resources enabled him to purchase in 1759 the estate of Auchincruive in Ayrshire, where he completed the mansion. In 1777 he visited Paris, and became acquainted with Franklin and Vergennes. He was introduced by Adam Smith, whose views on matters of trade he had adopted, to the knowledge of Lord Shelburne, who soon entertained a high opinion of his 'moderation, prudence, and judgment.' During the progress of the war with the American colonies he was frequently consulted, on account of his intimate acquaintance with their commerce and leading men, by the English ministry. In 1781 he gave bail for 50,000l. to Henry Laurens when imprisoned in the Tower.

On Shelburne's accession to office he answered some overtures of Franklin by sending their common friend Oswald to Paris to ascertain the nature of the American terms of peace. He crossed from England in April 1782, and on 16 April called on Franklin with letters from Shelburne and Laurens, the latter of whom had been his friend for nearly thirty years. Franklin informally gave him for communication to Shelburne a memorandum of his views, which included the cession of Canada and Nova Scotia to the American colonies, and with it Oswald returned to London. He again went to Paris on 4 May, and once more crossed to England on 14 May, to return to Paris at the close of that month. The situation was greatly complicated by the jealousies of Shelburne and Fox, which were well known to the French ministers and the principal Americans in France, and by the rivalries of the contending commissioners. Thomas Wal- pole was already in Paris on a negotiation with France concerning St. Eustatia, and he resented the presence of Oswald. Thomas Grenville was despatched by Fox to treat for peace with the French government, and he was very soon incensed against Oswald as the exponent of the views of Fox's opponent in the English ministry. Grenville on 4 June despatched an angry epistle to his leader, who answered it with equal indignation; but Fox could not succeed in obtaining the recall of Oswald, and the situation ended in the withdrawal of Grenville from his mission and the retirement of Fox and his friends from the cabinet on the death of the Marquis of Rockingham. Ultimately a commission, dated 25 July 1782, was granted to Oswald, authorising him to make peace with the American colonies, and he was afterwards assisted in the negotiations by Alleyne Fitzherbert, baron St. Helens [q. v.], and Henry Strachey. After much difficulty, preliminary articles of peace were signed at Paris by Oswald and the American commissioners on 30 Nov. 1782. The definitive Treaty of Versailles between England and France, Spain and the United States, was concluded on 3 Sept. 1783, but the signature of Oswald was not affixed to it, as by that time his patron was out of office. The earlier proceedings respecting the appointment of a negotiator were marked by the tortuous ways for which Lord Shelburne was conspicuous, and the conduct of Oswald himself was sometimes indiscreet; but the outcome was not unsatisfactory. England acknowledged the independence of the revolted colonies, who relinquished their claims on Canada and Nova Scotia on condition that England abandoned her claim of compensation for the loyal colonists. Oswald's correspondence with Lord Shelburne forms part of vols. lxx. and lxxi. of the manuscripts of the Marquis of Lansdowne, and is set out in the 'Historical Manuscripts Commission,' 5th Rep. App. pp. 239–42, and in Fitzmaurice's 'Life of Lord Shelburne,' iii. 175–302, 413–16. On the conclusion of the preliminary agreement Franklin and Oswald exchanged portraits; the portrait of the former was given by Oswald's nephew to Mr. Joseph Parkes (Mag. of American Hist. xxvii. 472-3; Lewis, Administrations, p. 43).

Oswald died at Auchincruive on 6 Nov. 1784 without issue, and the estate is now in the possession of the descendant of his elder brother. His widow died at Great George Street, Westminster, their town house, on 6 Dec. 1788, and her remains were carried to Scotland for burial. Burns, who spent his 'early years in her neighbourhood and among her servants and tenants,' wrote a bitter ode in her memory, dwelling on her 'unhonour'd years,' and her hands 'that took but never gave.' But he candidly confesses in a letter to Dr. John Moore (23 March 1789) that his 'poetic wrath' was roused by the fact that the arrival of her funeral pageantry at the inn at Sanquhar forced him and horse, both much fatigued, to ride twelve miles further to the next inn on 'a night of snow and drift.'

George Oswald (d. 1819) of Scotstoun, near Glasgow, who died on 6 Oct. 1819, aged 84, was Oswald's nephew. He was head of the tobacco firm of Oswald, Dennistoun, & Co. at Glasgow, and partner in the old 'Ship Bank.' In 1797 he was elected rector of Glasgow University, and he sat for his portrait to Gainsborough.

[Gent. Mag. 1784 pt. ii. p. 878, 1788 pt. ii. p. 1129; Burns's Works (1842 ed ), pp. 283, 672; Parton's Franklin, ii. 456-504; Burke's Landed Gentry; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 649; Appleton's American Cyclopaedia; Paterson's County of Ayr, ii. 417; Calder's Caithness, pp. 230-4; information from Mr. W. A. S. Hewins. Further information about the squabbles and negotiations preceding the Treaty of Versailles in 1783 is in the Memorials and Correspondence of C. J. Fox, iv. 199 et seq.; Lewis's Administrations of Great Britain, pp. 31-48, 81-4, where some extracts from a diary kept by Oswald are given; Memoirs of Court and Cabinets of George III, by the Duke of Buckingham; Jay's Life and Correspondence, vols. i. and ii.; Works of John Adams, vols. iii. vii. and viii.; Franklin's Works, ix. 240-408; the manuscripts of Sir Edward Strachey in the Hist. MSS. Comm. 6th Rep. App. pp. 403-4; the Whitefoord papers now in course of printing at the Clarendon Press; Lecky's History of England in the Eighteenth Century, iv. 226-68.]

W. P. C.