John Brown (Rhode Island)

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This article is about The Rhode Island merchant slave-trader. For the abolitionist, see John Brown (abolitionist). For other people with the name John Brown, see John Brown.
John Brown I
Born (1736-01-27)January 27, 1736
Providence, Rhode Island
Died September 20, 1803(1803-09-20) (aged 67)
Providence, Rhode Island
Nationality American
Occupation Merchant
Slave trader
Children James Brown III
Abigail Brown Francis
Sarah Brown Herreshoff
Alice Brown Mason
Parent(s) James Brown II
Relatives Chad Brown, ancestor
Nicholas Brown, brother
Moses Brown, brother
Joseph Brown, brother
John Brown Francis, grandson
John Brown House photographed in 1918

John Brown I (January 27, 1736 – September 20, 1803) was an American merchant, slave trader, and statesman from Providence, Rhode Island. Together with his brothers Nicholas, Joseph and Moses, John was instrumental in founding Brown University (then known as the College of Rhode Island) and moving it to their family's former land in Providence.[1][2][3][4] John Brown laid the cornerstone of the university's oldest building in 1770, and he served as its treasurer for 21 years (1775 – 1796).[2][4] Brown was one of the founders of Providence Bank and became its first president in 1791.[1][2] He was active in the American Revolution, notably as an instigator of the 1772 Gaspee Affair, and he served in both state and national government. At the same time, he was a powerful defender of slave trading, clashing aggressively—in newspapers, courts and politics—with his brother Moses, who had become an abolitionist.[1][4] John Brown's home in Providence is now a museum and National Historic Landmark.[2]

Early life[edit]

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, on January 27, 1736, to James Brown II and Hope Power, Brown went on to own a successful farming and shipping business with his brothers, Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses Brown. He was active in the slave trade and China trade and invested heavily in privateers during the 1760s through 1780s. In 1775, during the American Revolution, John Brown sold the United States Navy its first ship, the USS Providence (previously, the Katy). Brown was named as a delegate for Rhode Island to the Continental Congress in 1784-1785 but did not attend.

American revolution[edit]

John Brown played a leading role in the Gaspee Affair of 1772 that increased hostilities between the thirteen colonies and the British Empire and helped catalyze events leading up to the American Revolutionary War.[5] He was an active Federalist and pushed against Rhode Island's anti-federalist, "Country Party" in getting Rhode Island to become part of federal union.

Providence, the first warship to sail for America’s Continental Navy, was built in 1768 by John Brown. It was purchased by the colony of Rhode Island after British men-of-war began attacking Rhode Island’s shipping lanes. The General Assembly ordered its committee of safety to fit out two ships to defend the lanes, one of which became the Providence. The ship — at one time under the command of John Paul Jones, considered the father of the American Navy — went on to participate in 60 battles and to capture 40 British ships before it was dismantled in 1779 to prevent it from falling into the hands of the British.[6]

Political activity[edit]

Brown was eventually elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1798 and served there from 1799 to 1801. Brown was the first person prosecuted under the federal slave importation laws in 1796.[7] John Brown died at Providence, Rhode Island on September 20, 1803, and is buried in the North Burial Ground there.


John Brown was also an active slavetrader. On March 22, 1794, Congress passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited the making, loading, outfitting, equipping, or dispatching of any ship to be used in the trade of slaves.[8] Subsequently, on August 5, 1797, John Brown was tried in federal court as the first American to be tried under the 1794 law. Brown was convicted and was forced to forfeit his ship Hope.[7]

Brown's involvement in the Triangular Trade in African slaves and financial contribution to the early years of Brown University's development are addressed in the official Response of Brown University to the Report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.[9]

Business interests[edit]

Brown's business interests were varied. In addition to the slave trade he was involved in shipbuilding and real estate speculation. He was the founder of the Providence Bank - the first bank in Rhode Island, and organizer of the Providence South Bridge Company.[10] He was also a partner (along with his brother Moses Brown and Rhode Island Governor Stephen Hopkins) in the Hope Furnace (located in Hope Village on the border of towns of Scituate and Coventry, RI) which made cannons during the American Revolution and through the War of 1812.

Family ties[edit]

John Brown was a descendant of Chad Brown, a co-founder of Providence and early Baptist minister at the First Baptist Church in America following Roger Williams. His wife was Sarah (Smith) Brown (1738–1825).

John Brown's father was James Brown II (1698–1739) of Providence, and his grandfather was Elder James Brown (1666–1716), a pastor at the First Baptist Church; his grandmother by Elder James Brown was Mary (Harris) Brown. James Brown II established himself early in the mercantile business, trading in slaves, rum, molasses, and other goods. James Brown II married Hope Power (1702–1792), daughter of Nicholas, in 1723. They had six children. Mary Brown (1731–1795), the one daughter, married Dr. David Vanderlight. James Brown III (1724–1750), the eldest son, was a sea captain who died young. The other four children of James Brown II were Nicholas (1729–1791), Joseph (1733–1785), John (1736–1803) and Moses (1738–1836).[11]

John Brown's uncle was Obadiah Brown I (1712–1762) of Providence and son of Elder James Brown (1666–1716). Obadiah joined his older brother James Brown II (1698–1739) in the mercantile trade in cocoa, rum, molasses and slaves. Obadiah's initial role was as master of his brother's shipping vessels in the West Indies trade. After the death of James Brown II in 1739, Obadiah retired from the sea himself, but continued the business. He also helped to raise James' young children, later forming a partnership with James' four surviving sons as Obadiah Brown & Co. Obadiah died in Glocester, R.I. in 1762. In 1737, Obadiah Brown I married his first cousin, Mary Harris (1718–1805), daughter of Toleration and Sarah Harris. They had eight children. All four of the sons died in early childhood. The four daughters were Phebe (b.1738), Sarah (1742–1800), Anna (1744–1773) and Mary (b.1753). Phebe married John Fenner of Glocester, R.I., brother of Governor Arthur Fenner. Sarah married Lt. Gov. Jabez Bowen (1739–1815). Anna married her first cousin Moses Brown (1738–1836). Mary married Thomas Arnold (1751–1826).[12]

Another uncle was Rhode Island Deputy Governor Elisha Brown.

John Brown's younger brother, Moses Brown, was a notable abolitionist, and his brother-in-law and business partner, Jabez Bowen was a notable Rhode Island political figure. John Brown's nephew the philanthropist Nicholas Brown, Jr. is the namesake for Brown University. Brown's grandson, John Brown Francis was later a U.S. Senator and Governor of Rhode Island.

John Brown's son James Brown III was born on September 22, 1761 and educated at Harvard University where he graduated in 1780. In 1789 James was elected a member of the Board of Fellows of Brown University, and regularly attended meetings until his death. He never married, and died on December 12, 1834.

John Brown's daughter Sarah Brown Herreshoff (1773–1846) was married to Charles Frederick Herreshoff (1763–1819), an engineer derived from Germany. Their son Charles Frederick Herreshoff (1809–1888) and their grandsons, James Brown Herreshoff (1834–1930), John Brown Herreshoff (1841–1914) and Nathanael Greene Herreshoff (1848–1938) founded the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company, a boat-building establishment in Bristol, Rhode Island.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "John Brown (1736-1803) Papers". Rhode Island Historical Society Manuscripts Division. 1995. Retrieved January 28, 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d "John Brown". Gaspee Virtual Archives. April 2013 [originally posted 2003]. Retrieved January 28, 2015. 
  3. ^ The Charter of Brown University (PDF), Providence, RI: Brown University, 1945, retrieved 27 January 2015 
  4. ^ a b c "Report of the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice" (PDF). Brown University. October 2006. Retrieved January 28, 2015. 
  5. ^ "John Brown, American Raider on English Ship Gaspee". Gaspee.Info. Joseph Bucklin Society. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  6. ^ Dujardin, Richard C. (April 16, 2011). "Replica of Sloop Providence sets sail again". The Providence Journal. Archived from the original on 2011-04-20. 
  7. ^ a b Coughtry, Jay; Schipper, Martin, eds. (1998). A guide to the microfilm edition of Papers of the American slave trade (PDF). Series A: Selections from the Rhode Island Historical Society. Part 1: Brown Family Collections. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America. ISBN 1-55655-650-0. Retrieved January 28, 2015. 
  8. ^ Finkelman, Paul (2007). "Regulating the Trade - U.S. Constitution and Acts - The Abolition of The Slave Trade". The Abolition of the Slave Trade. The New York Public Library. Retrieved January 28, 2015. 
  9. ^ "Response of Brown University to the Report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice : February 2007" (PDF). Retrieved 2013-10-28. 
  10. ^ Allen, Richard Sanders (2004). Covered bridges of the Northeast (Dover ed.). Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. p. 78. ISBN 0486436624. 
  11. ^ "James Brown II (1698-1739) Papers". Rhode Island Historical Society. Retrieved 2013-10-28. 
  12. ^ "Obadiah Brown I (1712-1762) Papers". Rhode Island Historical Society. Retrieved 2013-10-28. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Charles Rappleye, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2006).

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
Thomas Tillinghast
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Rhode Island's at-large congressional district

Succeeded by
Joseph Stanton, Jr.