Richard Oswald was born in Scotland in 1705 to the Reverend George Oswald, minister of Dunnett in Caithness, and Margaret Murray. He taught at the parochial school in Thurso, but left the area after being passed over for mastership of the school. Oswald first migrated to Glasgow, and then to London, where he became a successful and wealthy merchant and slave trader. In 1750, he married Mary Ramsay, only daughter of Alexander Ramsay of Jamaica, and inherited sizeable estates in America and the West Indies. During the French and Indian War, he worked as an army contractor and expanded his fortune by supplying bread to English troops.
Through his American and mercantile interests, Oswald acquired a circle of international friends including Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, the comte de Vergennes, Adam Smith, and the Earl of Shelburne. During the Revolutionary War, he was frequently consulted by the ministry on American matters. Shelburne used Oswald as his emissary to Franklin in Paris during the first informal inquiries on American peace terms and, when Shelburne became prime minister, he appointed Oswald as English peace commissioner for America. Oswald was largely responsible for the preliminary articles signed in November, 1782, and left office with Shelburne when the peace treaty was defeated in the House of Commons. He died at Auchincruive, Scotland, on November 6, 1784.