James Swan was a writer, Revolutionary War soldier, land speculator and wealthy businessman who created fortunes in America and France. After the Revolution, Swan purchased 25 islands in Penobscot Bay, including the island now named for him, and founded the first recorded settlement on Swan’s Island.

He also spent the last 22 years of his life in a French jail, falsely accused of a debt he had the money to repay.

It is that enigmatic final period of his life that the Camden playwright Robert Manns explores in his play, “The Swan that Slept,” which was performed in September and October at the Lincoln Center for Arts & Education in Rockland.

When Swan was jailed in 1808, he did not have to remain. Many of his influential friends were prepared to pay his debt, according to Charles B. McLane and Carol Evarts McLane in volume 1 of Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast.

It was that choice which drew Manns to write about Swan. “I couldn’t believe that a man would commit himself to prison for 22 years when he could pay the fine and tell the French where to go,” said Manns.

“He stayed there on principle,” said Manns. “So that’s the question of the play: What price principle?”

Manns is intrigued that Swan would not secure his release from prison. He wonders whether his stand was worth the price. “He lost a beautiful wife, his children and a good dog; a shipping business and homes in Boston and France. It was a very expensive commitment for principle.”

The play is set in Swan’s jail cell in France, where Swan lived from 1808 to 1830. There are four characters: Swan; his jailer, Paul; his girlfriend, Roseanne; and the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, one of Swan’s friends.

During the play the jailer, Paul, draws Swan into a philosophical debate of why Swan is in jail. “We must look at the downside of principle,” Paul says.

Although the play is about a historical figure, Manns believes the debate about principle can apply to today. “I want people to think about principle in general and how it applies to our lives and our actions: what does it cost us?” he said.

Manns got the idea for the play five years ago, after purchasing a reprint of an 1898 history of Swan’s Island, written by Dr. H.W. Small, at the Picton Press in Rockport.

Swan was one of the extraordinary characters who emerged in the colonies during Revolutionary War. Born in Scotland in 1754, he came to what was then the British colonies in America in 1765, according to Small’s history, finding a job in Boston. He became an apprentice at the firm Thaxter & Son in Boston and became friends with Henry Knox, later a general in the Revolutionary War. In 1772, he published a book titled, “A Discussion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade.”

He took part in the Boston Tea Party and also fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill, where he was wounded twice, according to Small. Swan was promoted to captain and became secretary of the Massachusetts Board of War. When the war ended, he was adjunct general of the state.

During the war, Swan’s friendship with Knox deepened and he also got to know Lafayette and General George Washington. In 1776, he married Hepzebah Clarke and was one of post-war Boston’s wealthiest men. After the war, in the 1780s, Swan speculated in land what is now Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia and sank heavily in debt. In 1787 he went to Paris and, with the help of his friend Lafayette, became part of a firm with two other Frenchmen, which provided supplies to the French Army.

Swan’s French business prospered, and he paid off his debts. However, in 1808, a French businessman filed suit against Swan for two million francs. He denied the debt and was sent to prison in St. Pelagie, France. He was finally freed, along with other prisoners, after the July Revolution of 1830.

His connection with Swan’s Island began in 1785 with his Maine purchase. According to Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, Swan built a home on the east side of Burnt Coat Harbor, imitating the style of Knox’s Montpelier mansion in Thomaston. “What that is, was built here, if you can imagine that,” said Galen Turner, of Swans Island, who founded and runs the Swan’s Island Lobster and Marine Museum with his brother, Theodore.

Turner said it is impossible to know why Swan stayed in jail. But he wonders whether Swan had seen and done enough in his eventful life until that point and “he just preferred prison. I guess the people in prison adored him. Maybe he was more comfortable there.”

Turner believes the biographical facts do not begin to tell Swan’s story. “What is known about him is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s obvious he was a very complex man.”