Brown vs. Brown: Brothers go head to head
In 1770, the Rev. Samuel Hopkins preached his first sermon against slavery and the slave trade, calling them terrible sins.
His message surprised church members, some of them slave traders. One family left the church.
The notion that slavery was immoral was slow to take hold.
The Quakers were among the first to question the practice and, in 1773, they asked members to free their slaves. Not everyone agreed. Wealthy businessman Abraham Redwood and even a long-term Rhode Island governor refused to free their slaves and were disowned by the group.
Although the Quakers would help federal officials prosecute slave traders in the 1790s, they were seen as a quirky fringe group. A century earlier, the Puritans in Boston hanged Quakers and Roger Williams called them heretics.
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By 1797, John Brown had burned the British ship Gaspee, co-founded Providence’s first bank, sent a trade ship to China and laid the cornerstone of Brown University’s administration building.
He was, says a biographer, one of America’s leading merchants.
But the federal government had other words for him: illegal slave trader.
Agents seized his ship, the Hope, for violating the U.S. Slave Trade Act of 1794. Brown was the first Rhode Islander — possibly the first citizen in the new nation — to be tried under the law which forbid the trading of slaves in foreign ports.
On Aug. 5, in District Court in Newport, Judge Benjamin Bourn outlined the reasons for seizing the Hope. Brown and others had “fitted, equipped, loaded, and prepared
the ship that sailed from Providence to Africa and on to Havana “for the purpose of carrying on a trade and traffic in Slaves” which was contrary to the laws of the United States, Judge Bourn wrote.
Federal authorities learned of John Brown’s activities from his own brother Moses and other anti-slavery radicals.
John and Moses had been at odds over the slave trade for more than a decade. Moses, in fact, had helped push for the 1794 law after an earlier state law to stop the trade was not enforced.
Now, in the late 1790s, the Providence Abolition Society was suing merchants for breaking the federal law. The group’s strategy was a simple one: if the slavers agreed to quit the trade, they would drop their suits.
One of Providence’s biggest slave traders, Cyprian Sterry, buckled under the group’s pressure, and agreed to stop selling Africans.
But John wouldn’t.
After months of out-of-court wrangling, the two sides failed to reach an agreement.
In court, John lost one round but won another.
The judge decreed that the Hope, along with “her tackle, furniture, apparel and other appurtances”, be sold at an India Point auction on Aug. 26.
But, in a second court appearance, John triumphed over the abolitionists.
In Newport, the center of the state slave trade, jurors were reluctant to convict a vocal defender of the African trade.
In a 1798 letter to his son James, John Brown said he had won a verdict for costs against his prosecutors whom he called a “Wicked and abominable Combination.”
The state’s anti-slavery foes, he said, were “Running Round in the Rain . . . I tell them they had better be Contented to Stop ware they are, as the Further they go the wors they will fail.”
It wasn’t the first time John Brown clashed with his brother and Rhode Island’s other slavery foes.
And it wouldn’t be the last.
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The two brothers did not always quarrel.
As young men, they learned the sea trade and manufacturing from their uncle Obadiah. With their brothers Joseph and Nicholas, they formed a family firm, Nicholas Brown and Company, in 1762. The brothers shipped goods to the West Indies, made candles from the oil of sperm whales and later produced pig iron at Hope Furnace in Scituate.
Each man brought a different skill to the partnership. Nicholas was methodical and plodding, John was bold and reckless, Joseph was a good technician and Moses was erudite, says Brown family biographer James B. Hedges.
In 1764, the four brothers invested in their first slave voyage, the ill-fated Sally. It was a financial disaster; more than half of the slaves died before they could be sold in the West Indies. The Browns never financed another slave trip together.
But John, anxious to expand his business interests, struck out on his own. In 1769, he outfitted another slave ship to Africa.
The family dynamic changed forever.
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After the death of his wife and a daughter, Moses embraced the spiritual beliefs of the Quakers. In 1773, following their example, he freed the six slaves he owned and relinquished his interest in four others who worked at the family’s candle works.
He invited his family and several Quakers to hear his explanation. “Whereas I am clearly convinced that the buying and selling of men of what color soever as slaves is contrary to the Divine Mind,” he began, “I do therefore . . . set free the following negroes being all I am possessed of or any ways interested in.”
Moses promised to oversee the education of the youngest slaves and he gave each of the men the use of an acre of land from his farm. Consider me a friend, he told them.
For generations, the Browns had been Baptist ministers and churchmen. But a year after he freed his slaves, Moses officially converted to Quakerism. He was sure his wife Anna’s death in 1773 was God’s way of punishing him for his role in the slave trade.
Almost immediately, he and other Quakers began prodding local and federal lawmakers to ban both slavery and the slave trade.
In 1774, the General Assembly passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves into Rhode Island, an amended version of a bill advanced by Moses Brown that would have ended the slave trade altogether. In fact, it included a loophole that allowed slaves who could not be sold elsewhere to be brought into Rhode Island for one year. In addition, the proposed fines for importing slaves were omitted.
The “law proved totally ineffectual,” says historian Christy Millard Nadalin.
The first act calling for the freeing of slaves in Rhode Island came in 1784. But the General Assembly did not want it done quickly. Under the act, children born to slave mothers after March 1, 1784 would be free when they became adults. The law, says Nadalin, “required no real sacrifice on the part of the slave owners, and it did nothing to curb the actual trade in slaves.”
In 1787, the General Assembly made it illegal for any Rhode Islander to be involved in the African slave trade — the first such law in America. But, again, it was ignored; in the next three years, 25 ships sailed to Africa.
Two years later, Moses Brown, the Rev. Samuel Hopkins of Newport, and about 180 others organized the Abolition Society. Its mission, according to J. Stanley Lemons, history professor at Rhode Island College, was to enforce the laws against the slave trade.
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Just as the abolitionists were organizing, a bitter attack against them erupted in the Providence Gazette.
The society, a critic wrote, was “created not to ruin only one good citizen but to ruin many hundreds within the United States” who have all or part of their property in slaves and the slave trade.
These people you are calling “Negro-dealers” and “kidnappers” are some of the “very best men” in Rhode Island, he wrote.
“This traffic, strange as it appears to the conscientious Friend or Quaker, is right, just and lawful, and consequently practiced every day.”
The diatribe was signed “A Citizen.”
The writer was John Brown.
Brother Moses and other abolitionists responded, accusing John and other defenders of slavery as selfish, ignorant and pitiful.
Moses publicly refuted a number of the “Citizen’s” arguments, including the assertion that Africans were better off as slaves in America because they would have been killed back home.
The “Citizen” had his facts wrong, Moses countered. But if his argument were right, wouldn’t it be an even greater act of humanity to grant the captives their freedom after arriving in America?
The battle was the “most bitter and unrestrained controversy” in the state’s early history, says Moses Brown biographer Mack Thompson. What started as a discussion about the pros and cons of the slave trade “soon degenerated into an acrimonious debate in which politics and personalities became the main subject.”
Moses eventually withdrew from the public debate.
But, privately, he continued to plead for an end to the state’s slave trade.
“Confronted with public apathy, inefficient state officials, and the power of the slave traders,” Moses and his fellow abolitionists had little impact, says biographer Thompson.
Moses couldn’t even convince his own brother that slave trading was evil.
So he and others turned to U.S. Attorney Ray Greene, who dragged John and other slave traders into court.
John lost his ship but never publicly apologized.
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In 1800, two years after he was elected to Congress, John Brown was one of only five congressmen to vote against a bill to strengthen the 1794 law under which he had been prosecuted.
Speaking against the measure, he offered three familiar arguments. First, he said, it was wrong to deny to American citizens the benefits of a trade that was open to Europeans. Second, the trade was not immoral because the condition of those enslaved was “much bettered.” Finally, he argued that the trade would bring much-desired revenue to the nation’s treasury.
“Why should a heavy fine and imprisonment be made the penalty for carrying on a trade so advantageous?” he asked.
The abolitionist Moses, meanwhile, joined Samuel Slater to make cloth in a mill in Pawtucket. They made clothes from cotton picked by slaves on plantations in the South.
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John Brown never changed his mind about profits and slavery, says Joaquina Bela Teixeira, executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society in Providence. “His sense of morality never shifted.” He tried to fix tobacco prices and filed false insurance claims, she says, “yet he’s touted as one of Providence’s patriots.”
But the Browns weren’t big slave traders, says James Campbell, history professor at Brown University.
They played a big role in the state’s slave trading history, in part, because they were major historical figures, kept meticulous records and have a name linked to a major university.
“Slavery was a fact of life. Yet, what is compelling about that late 18th-century moment is that you get this new moral sensibility. At some point, people acted against the slave trade. Not everyone did, and not everyone acted at the same time. But through the Browns you can see these deep historical currents” that ran through the era, Campbell says.
It’s also important to understand that, despite their public arguments, the two brothers cared about each other, Campbell says.
“In private correspondence, they are very frank with one another. My sense is that they loved one another. In one letter, Moses says, ‘John, I’m doing this for you.'”
Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.