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John Brown Papers

Historical note

John Brown (1736-1803) was born in Providence, R.I., the fourth son of merchant James Brown II (1698-1739) and Hope (Power) Brown (1702-1792). He began his working life in partnership with his three brothers (Nicholas, Joseph and Moses) and his uncle as Obadiah Brown & Co., a mercantile firm that traded in rum, slaves, molasses and other goods. The firm was renamed Nicholas Brown & Co. after the death of Obadiah in 1762. This firm in turn dissolved in 1774, and John Brown went into business on his own account. He briefly took on his son-in-law, John Francis, as a partner in 1792, until Francis' untimely death in 1796.

John Brown was among the leading American merchants and businessmen of his day. He remained active in the slave trade and in distilling rum. He was the first Rhode Island merchant to break into the lucrative trade with China by sending the General Washington to Canton in 1787. The ship was one of the first American vessels to arrive in China. Along with his uncle Moses Brown, he led the merchants in Providence to found the Providence Bank in the early 1790s. John was elected the first President of the bank in 1791. John Brown also came into possession in 1795 of 210,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks in New York State which he and his heirs spent considerable time and money trying to develop. His home on Power Street was described by John Quincy Adams as "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion I have ever seen on the continent."

In addition to his mercantile activities, Brown was active in many civic circles as well. He was an ardent patriot, helped organize the famous burning of the British ship Gaspee in 1772, and served as a civilian on a wide variety of committees during the war. He served in the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1785, and as a United States Representative from 1799 to 1801. He was active in the First Baptist Church, and was treasurer of Rhode Island College (later Brown University) for 21 years. He also promoted the construction of the Washington Bridge across the Seekonk River at Fox Point in 1793, and supervised the paving of city streets.

Brown's involvement in the slave trade took many forms. He had been involved through ownership of slave vessels for most of his life, beginning with shares in his family's Wheel of Fortune in 1759 and Sally in 1764. He began investing outside of the family in slave ships in 1769, and was a partner in several voyages before his death, though the trade was never at the center of his business. Beyond owning vessels, Brown was also a vocal supporter of the slave trade, defending it in the press and in Congress, often in direct conflict with his abolitionist brother Moses Brown (1738-1836). In 1797, he was the first Rhode Islander, and quite possibly the first American, to be tried under the Slave Trade Act of 1794. Though he was acquitted of criminal charges, his ship Hope was forfeited and placed at auction. He beat another prosecution in 1798. In 1799, Brown and others personally paid a call upon Samuel Bosworth, the Surveyor of the Port of Bristol, warning him not to take part in an auction of a slave ship the next morning. Bosworth ignored the thinly veiled threats, and while walking to the auction the next day this federal employee was kidnaped and deposited two miles down the bay. This effectively intimidated the officials, and effectively put a halt to local enforcement of the Slave Trade Act.

John Brown married Sarah Smith (1738-1825) in 1760. They had six children: James IV (1761-1834); Benjamin (1763-1773); Abigail (1764-1766); another Abigail (1766-1821); Sarah (1773-1846); and Alice (1777-1823).

James, the only surviving son, never married, and never developed a taste for the family business. Abigail married John Francis (1763-1796), who was briefly in partnership with John Brown. Sarah married Charles Frederick Herreshoff (1763-1819), who was briefly involved in the Brown family business and lost large sums of money on its behalf. Alice married James Brown Mason (1775-1819), a physician and U.S. Congressman.