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THERE’S A LONG history of immigrants to the U.S. getting scammed. And I’ve just learned of a spectacular example, the Scioto Scandal described in Bruce Berkowitz’s Playfair: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World. Complications of the tale call for Part 1 here today and Part 2 tomorrow.
Bruce D. Berkowitz is on the Board of Editors of Orbis, the Journal of World Affairs of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Playfair was a 10-year project of his, sort of a sleuthing hobby in addition to his academic studies of today’s world strategies.
William Playfair, the Man. Scots-born William Playfair is difficult to categorize in just a few words: Berkowitz says, “When writers don’t label him as an engineer, writer, or scoundrel, they sometimes call him an ‘adventurer.’ ”
It was in the early days of the French Revolution, 1789–1799, that Playfair, fluent in French with connections galore, got involved in the Compagnie du Scioto, aka the Scioto Land Company. Its plan, devised in the U.S. in 1787, was a lofty one: sale of undeveloped U.S. territory to immigrant Frenchmen.
The idea looked like a win-win at the time. The young U.S. government wanted to develop its Northwest Territory (now including Ohio), but not particularly by depopulating its eastern States. And there were plenty of Frenchmen eager to avoid the guillotine and other unpleasantries of their country’s revolution.
Alas, before long, the Scioto Scam was in a shambles: French immigrants arrived in the U.S. on May 3, 1790, to learn that the Scioto Land Company actually owned no land. Its founder, William Duer and his associates on both sides of the Atlantic resorted to exchanging deceptive, if not outright angry, communications (each one in those days taking four to eight weeks in transit). A separate Ohio Company had secured options on part of the land. Several of the U.S. Founding Fathers got involved up past their silk stockings.
Congress finally achieved a settlement, albeit only a partial one, with the Scioto Frenchmen. Duer ended up in debtor’s prison. And, as Thomas Jefferson told his friend James Madison, “if he [Duer] is not relieved by certain persons, he will lay open to the world such a scene of villainy as will strike it with astonishment.”
Duer passed away in debtor’s prison in 1799.
As Bruce Berkowitz observes, “And that swept the first great American political scandal under the rug for the next hundred years.”
Tomorrow, I share other tidbits gleaned from Berkowitz’s well documented account. Cited are no less than George Washington and an anonymous Frenchman. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018