REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
ROBERT B. SWAIN
BY WILLIAM V. WELLS.
The reputation for enterprise, intelligence, and liberality which San Francisco in her remarkable growth has acquired abroad, is undoubtedly due, more than to any other class, to her merchants. The same may be true of most communities, where commerce, is the vital element of their prosperity; but it especially so in one whose merchants have always exerted the chief influence in directing the policy of municipal or State government, in shaping congressional legislation relating to the Pacific coast, and giving the tone to public sentiment and measures. In this light, biographical sketches of commercial men long identified with the city, assume something of historical value, as inseparably connected with its material and social progress. For many years Mr. Swain has been known as a prominent merchant of San Francisco, filling, during that time, positions of the highest responsibility, political and social, and honorably associated with important movements. The records of societies organized for literary, religious, and benevolent purposes, are silent testimonials of his activity in charitable works; while to public discussions of maritime questions, he brings a quickness of perception and a familiarity with those subjects, only to be acquired through business talent of a high order joined to great experience. It is not, however, from a merely commercial stand-point that we propose to sketch Mr. Swain. In the last ten years his name has been interwoven with men and events which have become celebrated, and the character before us is thus additionally representative.
Mr. Swain, who is of Quaker origin, was born about the year 1825, in Nantucket, Mass., his island home fronting upon the rude Atlantic, and his earliest associations having been among rugged and adventurous seamen. At the age of seventeen, he went to New York, and becoming a clerk in the famous house of Grinnell, Minturn & Co., received a thorough mercantile education. In 1855, failing health, caused by a too close attention to an extensive commission business, in which, after having remained with the above named firm for many years, he had embarked for himself, obliged him to seek a milder climate, and in that year he came to California intending to remain only long enough to ensure a restoration to health. Increasing interests and duties, however, required a longer stay, and here he has ever since found his field of labor, pursuing his legitimate business of Commission Merchant Fire and Marine Insurance Agent. His sphere of occupation speedily displayed an ability and readiness of application to diverse subjects in the walks of social and business life, and he was evidently destined to be a leading man in the State of his adoption. Soon after his arrival, he was elected a Trustee of the Mercantile Library Association of San Francisco, and thenceforth served that institution in various capacities, having for the past four years been either President or Vice President. He has been untiring in his labors to subserve the interests of the Library, and his disinterested efforts while presiding over its welfare indicate a painstaking care for its advancement. On the inauguration of the new Library building in June, 1868, Mr. Swain thus concluded a speech, in which he had proposed at some length a plan for bonding the debt of the Association, which bonds he trusted would be eventually liquidated by the donations of zealous and liberal minded citizens:
Of the ultimate success of this scheme, the Trustees have not a thread of doubt, and it now remains to be seen whether the people of this city will at once second their efforts; whether the people of this city are alive to the necessity of a literary centre like this, which is destined to work a silent but potent influence upon the morals of the community and the future prosperity of the State; whether the fathers and mothers who have sons ripening to manhood, and to whom membership in this Association may be a matter of vital consequence, are anxious that their talents and energies be not wasted on selfish and ignoble objects; whether they prefer for their sons the reading-room to the race-course— the sure delight of books to the uncertainties of the gaming table— literary pleasure to licentions indulgence— and the cultivation of a refined and ennobling taste to mere sensuous weakness and fashionable frivolity.
Afterwards, when the Mercantile Library was threatened with extinction by reason of a crushing indebtedness, this appeal presented itself with renewed force. In the efforts to rescue the institution from its financial difficulties, Mr. Swain, who was still its President, took an active part, devoting valuable time to the subject, and originating numerous practical suggestions to that end.
In New York he had been an intimate friend and parishioner of the Rev. Dr. Bellows, and joining the First Unitarian Church on his arrival at San Francisco, he at once became influential as an executive member, and was soon after elected President of the Board of Trustees, an office which he continued to hold for ten years. While he was filling this position, it became necessary in 1859 to select a new pastor for the Society. Mr. Swain at once placed himself in communication with the Rev. T. Starr King, then in pastoral charge of the Hollis street church in Boston, the result of which was that Mr. King consented to transfer his labors and influence to the Pacific coast. A portion of this correspondence appears in an address delivered by Mr. Swain before the Society in 1864, and published by request. It forms a most interesting chapter in the life of the eminent divine, a few days after whose death, and in whose memory it was delivered; and in its style and matter, the affecting and beautiful tribute is highly creditable to the oratorical powers, as well as the liberal Christian spirit of Mr. Swain. In the spring of 1860, Mr. King arrived, and from that time until March, 1864, the date of his decease, he found in Mr. Swain his wisest and closest advisor and friend. Indeed, from the time of his landing in San Francisco, the two were almost inseparable, and this intimate companionship may be said to have imbued our subject with his highest aspirations and worthiest aims in life. The sketch of that great man elsewhere in these pages, renders unnecessary any further allusion to this particular point. Truly fortunate was the advent of Mr. King in San Francisco, not only for the church which he raised out of bankruptcy by the magic of his genius, but for the State and the country; for to the splendor of his eloquence is largely owing the sentiment which saved California from the vortex of secession and the horrors of civil war. Since his arrival in California, Mr. Swain has seen the affairs of the Unitarian Society changed from the most deplorable financial aspect to one of flourishing prosperity—a result traceable in no small degree to his own prudent management and unwearied efforts. About the time of his retiring from the Presidency of the Board of Trustees, the pews rented for a premium of $24,750; enabling the society to wipe out entirely the debt of the church, which had lingered along from the time the new edifice had received the shock of its illustrious builder's decease two months after it was consecrated. Mr. Swain resigned only when the society was free from debt.
Although frequently solicited to serve in a public capacity, having been several times applied to by nominating conventions to become a candidate for Senate and Assembly, he invariably refused. While claiming to be an ardent and original Republican, he shrunk from contact with the coarser machinery of politics, preferring the dignity of his own calling as a merchant and his books, to active participation for personal ends in a political canvass. Early in 1863, he was appointed, without solicitation, and as we believe without his knowledge, Superintendent of the United States Branch Mint at San Francisco. Following the rule that had invariably guided him hitherto, he hesitated before accepting, but finally yielded at the request of many citizens and all the officers of the Mint. The complimentary manner in which the office was tendered by President Lincoln, would scarcely have justified a refusal.
The office upon which Mr. Swain now entered has of late years come to be regarded as more strongly identified with the interests of California than any other in the gift of the Federal Government. It has been a reliable bank of deposit for the miner, with a capital of thousands of millions behind it for security, and to some extent the regulator of finance on the Pacific coast. The position was no sinecure. The Mint is a hard-working mill, with the glare and heat of a chemist's laboratory. It has never been a stepping-stone to political preferment; it has never been a school for Senators or Congressmen. It requires skilled labor and scientific attainment. The amount of work done within its walls may be imagined from the fact that since its creation in 1854 not far from three hundred millions of dollars, or more than half the sum coined by the Philadelphia Mint since 1793, has been struck from its presses. Mr. Swain's management of the vast funds placed in his charge, merits a much more lengthy and detailed description than can be here devoted to the subject. In the manipulation of the precious metals, the Government supposes that there will be a considerable natural loss or wastage, and accordingly a large allowance is given by law to the officers of the Mint for that purpose. Although in some years, under a previous administration, this allowance had not only been exhausted but largely exceeded, under that of Mr. Swain the loss in no year was ever more than a few hundred dollars, showing the nation an instance in which a great public trust was conducted as honestly and thoroughly as any private business. It has been said of Mr. Swain, that "he has succeeded in accomplishing what few men ever accomplish—administering a department of the government service so as to disarm party animosity, and leave no place for criticism to hang a complaint upon." In assuming control, he resolved to be uninfluenced by cliques, combinations, or parties. Of course, tremendous pressure was brought to bear for places, but office brokers and office hunters soon learned that the new Superintendent could not be used as a tool. While demanding that the employés should be unconditionally loyal to the Government, integrity, capacity, and faithfulness, were the chief requisites. The Mint was a branch of the Government especially requiring the public confidence, and he steadily refused to permit it to be prostituted to political ends; and this course met the entire approval of Mr. Lincoln and of several Secretaries of the Treasury. The remarkable success of Mr. Swain in the discharge of his duties for six years, we think, may be in a great measure be attributed to this policy.
After holding the position for about two years, consulting rather his own tastes and inclinations than the notoriety of public station, he tendered his resignation of the Superintendency. It may be that this course partly grew out of an honest indignation in his own breast at the persistent misrepresentations by persons anxious to supplant him, to meet which Mr. Swain, with becoming dignity and conscious rectitude, would not descend to a contradiction. The letter was sent without the knowledge of his many friends and the public generally. His popularity and the estimation in which his services were held is shown by the fact that as soon as it became known that his resignation was in the hands of the Department at Washington, a paper, signed by all the bankers and many of the leading merchants of San Francisco, was presented to him, requesting that he withdraw the document, and a dispatch from the same gentlemen in reference to the matter was also sent to Secretary McCulloch. By a singular coincidence, this dispatch was crossed on the wires by one from the Secretary himself preferring the same request to Mr. Swain. Thus urged, he consented to retain his place at the head of the Mint, which he continued to hold until the summer of 1869—his administration of its affairs compelling the unqualified endorsement of the Department, while the character and unimpeachable integrity of the Superintendent was made the theme for special encomium on the floors of Congress.
In 1865, Mr. Swain was one of the founders, in conjunction with other philanthropic gentlemen, of the San Francisco Benevolent Association, which patterns after a like society in New York known as the "Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor." Of this institution Mr. Swain has been the President from the date of its organization. At its first anniversary meeting in May, 1866, in an address to the members, he gave a graphic statement of the scope of the Society's usefulness and charities during the year then just ended. Mr. Swain said:
It is not permitted to the trustees to relate in detail the facts that have been gathered bearing on the extent and nature of indigence and suffering in our city, because a proper regard for the peculiar sensitiveness of the poor has imposed upon them the obligation of secrecy. But if I could divulge a tithe of the information which we have gained—if I could tell of the poverty and despair that is nurtured in our very midst—of the squalid destitution prevailing here—which exists not a stone's throw from the abodes of wealth and splendor—if I could make known to the generous-minded people of this city how, through the gentle beneficence of this society, which is but the wise concentration of the individual charities of the members, anguish has been assuaged, bleeding hearts cured, widowed mothers assisted to the necessaries of life, hungry little children fed, and their delicate, naked bodies clothed against the wet and cold; if I could relate a small portion of the tales of wretchedness and woe that have been whispered into the ears of the officers—tales of disappointed ambition, buried hopes and expectations, blasted fortunes, unexpected penury and discouraged hearts; and if I could paint a picture of the army of houseless, homeless, hungry, shivering, dejected, sorrow-stricken people whose sufferings they have relieved, and some of whom have been raised from the slough of despond beyond the necessity of further aid—if I could present such pictures as these to the full gaze of a kind, indulgent public—pictures which have had their reality in the experience of this Association—I am sure that parents who remembered their children, men who have wives, women who have husbands upon whom, perhaps in this capricious age, fortune may one day frown—I am sure that such would never allow this Society to want for funds. For its scope is broad and catholic. It extends the hand of charity to all. It is no respecter of persons, color or race. Whether the applicant be Jew or Gentile, Greek or Roman, American or foreign, black or white, young or old, Protestant or Catholic—whatever the sex, whatever the sect, whatever the skin, so long as it is a being bearing the impress of humanity and made in the image of God, the case receives immediate attention according to its nature and exigency. Nor does it supersede existing charities, but it cooperates with them, and so far as is practicable, makes them the more available to those for whom they are designed. The work which it performs is various. Some are furnished with food, some with fuel, some with clothing. Some are assisted in the payment of rents, who would otherwise with their children be turned homeless into the streets. Some are assisted to employment; some furnished with the means to reach distant relations, who will care for them; and in one instance, to illustrate the scope and breadth and comprehensiveness of this Society, a beneficiary—a very excellent woman— was provided with a worthy husband, with whom she is now living happily.
To many public charities during the last ten years, Mr. Swain has been a contributor, and of several to this day an active working member, devoting time, money, and labor to alleviating the necessities of his fellow-creatures. At the Southern Relief Meeting held in April, 1867, in San Francisco, he was one of the officers, and took a prominent part by word and action in forwarding the object of the assemblage; during the war, he was an indefatigable member of the Sanitary Committee; for many years he has been Secretary of the Board of Trustees of the Ladies' Protection and Relief Society; is Treasurer of the San Francisco Lying-in Asylum and Founding Hospital, and an officer in several other charitable institutions that need not be mentioned. In the debates and proceedings of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Swain has been a constant participant for many years, and from its earliest days has been Vice President or a Trustee of the institution. The records are replete with the results of his practical suggestions on commercial subjects. His especial pride in life is his mercantile education. At the opening of the new Merchants' Exchange in July, 1867, being introduced in his official capacity of Superintendent of the Mint, he said in the course of a speech of considerable length:
But I am not overpleased, Mr. President, with the association into which you have brought me. It is not as a public officer that I desire to be known. Creditable as it may appear to enjoy the confidence of the people and the Government, I regard the vocation of the merchant in the broadest and the most comprehensive acceptation of that word as the most important of all. In the one case, the accident of position or office may give a factitious importance to the individual, to which he may not be entitled. But in the case of the merchant, his influence, his power, his importance, are not reflected, are not derived, are not uncertain. They spring out of the depths of his own nature, and no external surroundings can raise him to a place higher than that to which his own genius may lift him. I claim to rank as a merchant I believe I hold a public office. I desire no prouder honor than to hold humble rank with men who have so distinguished their class. I regard honorable distinction as a merchant as infinitely more valuable than I do the highest glory that can come from any office in the gift of people or President. Whose name stands higher in the catalogue of merchants, higher in the roll of fame, higher in the annals of history, than that of George Peabody? What office in the gift of Prince, Potentate, or President, can confer such distinction as has been earned by this simple, unpretending merchant and banker? Indeed, does not his name shine out more glowingly than that of any Prince or President himself? And this, not because he has become possessed of huge wealth, but because his mind has been disciplined while accumulating that wealth, to a correct knowledge of the uses to which it should be applied, which so few understand. Such men, too, were Robert B. Minturn, Jonathan Goodhue, and Peter Cooper, now living, and a host of others.
Mr. Swain not only possesses the faculty of expressing himself readily and neatly on public occasions, but he is also peculiarly happy in the composition of addresses, while his pen has frequently been engaged in contributions to the press, both by editorials and communications, on a variety of subjects, but usually in the discussion of topics of pressing public interest. His style is compact and logical, and when occasion seems to require it, men and measures are handled with a force and directness that leaves nothing to be inferred.
In retiring from the responsibilities and cares of office, he gladly resumed his place as a private citizen, enabling him to pursue his regular mercantile business, which, however, he had never abandoned during his superintendency of the Mint. The office came to him unsought, and he left it without regret, satisfied to know that the department over which he had presided for so many years, continually enjoyed the confidence of the people and of the Government, that in the discharge of his duty he established many valuable precedents which no successor can set aside, and that during his official career not a word was whispered even among his political enemies against the upright management of an institution which sends forth two-thirds of the coinage of the country. Notwithstanding that he has figured conspicuously as a man of affairs—as a public man—those who know him intimately are aware than he does not court prominence or notoriety—has no ambition to be a leader. If he has taken a leading part in public matters, it was with the consciousness that duty demanded the consecration of time and influence to useful objects, and the building up of a purer and more elevated tone of society, while his own impulses leaned to the studious seclusion of his library or the quiet of his legitimate calling. Together with a strict fidelity to every engagement, and unclouded clearness and accuracy in business, he has a cheerful, elastic, ingenuous manner that invites confidence, and is in keeping with a kindly, sympathetic nature. Still in the prime of life, Mr. Swain has been fortunate in retaining, through many years, all his valuable early friendships, while the range of his commercial connections has widely extended on both sides of the continent.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 615-624.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.