John Carter Brown

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For the former director of the U.S. National Gallery of Art, see J. Carter Brown.
John Carter Brown
Born 1797
Died June 11, 1874
Providence, Rhode Island
Nationality American
Alma mater Brown University
Occupation Book collector
Spouse(s) Sophia Augusta Brown
(m. 1859; his death 1874)
Children John Nicholas Brown I
Harold Brown
Sophia Augusta Brown
Parent(s) Nicholas Brown, Jr.
Ann Carter
Relatives Nicholas Brown, Sr. (grandfather)

John Carter Brown II (1797 – June 11, 1874) was a book collector whose library formed the basis of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.[1]

Early life[edit]

John Carter Brown II was born in 1797, the youngest of three surviving children born to Nicholas Brown, Jr. (1769–1841), the namesake patron of Brown University, and Ann Carter, daughter of John Carter, a prominent printer in Providence.[2] His grandfather was Nicholas Brown, Sr. (1729–1791), brother of John Brown, Moses Brown, and Joseph Brown, who was a merchant and slavetrader who co-founded the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.[3]

During his upbringing, he was taught philanthropy and public leadership by his father and his uncles who were involved with such work. he attended what is famously known as Brown University and graduated in 1816.[2]


In 1816, the year of his graduation from Brown, he joined his family owned company Brown & Ives. Due to his older brother Nicholas Carter Brown III leaving the family firm, John shouldered his company responsibilities although it was not his preferred field; Brown & Ives had strong ties to business and politics. He however was into other areas such as history, literature and art.[2]

Book collection[edit]

In 1822, John went to Europe as the beginning of his two-year grand tour, but it initially was to be a business trip on behalf of Brown & Ives. Originally his trips to Europe and the American West had been on “The Revolution of Empires;” he later directed his attention to show that the current historical theme at the time was the movement of people from one home setting to another and the way people could adapt according to each setting. Benjamin Carter, his uncle, later became his mentor. Benjamin was the first to introduce John Carter Brown II to “the great subject”. The great subject refers to the correlation between the new and old worlds including the effect they had on each other as time passes.[2]

John Carter Brown II spent a good portion of his life collecting books and articles to help other people expand their knowledge, it also fed his interests about history and things he was interested in because he could read about them as he collected books related to the topic. Brown did not create this habit on his own, since 1749 his ancestors had been buying books and founding places to use them. In 1753, the family founded Providence Library and 83 years later, Providence Athenaeum was created all under the Brown family name. Brown and his brother, Nicolas Carter Brown, followed suit.

In 1841, upon the passing of his father, Brown's influence on book buying skyrocketed, when he inherited all of his father's company shares. A Frenchman named Henri Ternaux had a well developed library himself, but in 1846, Brown had already been accumulating most of Henri’s library. In the same year, Brown managed to buy his brother's books in order to expand his own library. Brown's love for books and collecting found a man named Henry Stevens who planted himself in Europe to search for books of interest. John’s collection had gotten so large he expanded his house by adding a modern fireproof library so his books would not be damaged; he also hired a full-time librarian to manage his books and print catalogs of his enormous collection.

In 1846, he became the first American to join the Hakluyt Society as a charter member, and in 1855, he was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society.[4]

In 1852, he received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Brown University.[5]

Personal life[edit]

Brown's daughter, Sophia Augusta Brown (1867–1947), second wife of William Watts Sherman, circa 1914

In 1859, at the age of 62, he married Sophia Augusta Brown (1825–1909),[6][7] a descendant of Roger Williams (1603–1683). Together, they had:

He died on June 11, 1874 at 62 years of age.[11] The bulk of his estate, besides a $50,000 (equivalent to $1,058,382 in 2017 dollars) donation to Brown, was left to his children. The trustees were his wife, Robert H. Ives, Thomas P. I. Goddard, and George W. R. Matteson.[12] In 1876, his wife had a cottage in Newport on Bellevue Avenue.[13]


Although he did not like to share his generous collection of books, he still continued to make contributions to Brown University, Butler Hospital, and the Rhode Island Hospital. He did other philanthropic work by joining playing major roles in Anti-Slavery campaigns, he became President of the Emigrant Aid Society when the United States granted every country in its region to practice slavery. Before his death, he was able to amass a collection of 7,500 books.[2] When his oldest son died in 1900, his well collected books were granted to Brown University with an endowment and a building.[1]


He was the grandfather of John Nicholas Brown II (1900-1979), Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and great-grandfather of J. Carter Brown (1934-2002), director of the National Gallery of Art.


  1. ^ a b "History of the John Carter Brown library". Retrieved 2011-04-21. Although the Brown family had been acquiring books since early in the eighteenth century, the present collection was not fully launched until the mid-nineteenth century when John Carter Brown (1797–1874) began avid pursuit of Americana, an area of interest he termed “the Great Subject.” His son, John Nicholas Brown (1861–1900), actively continued this tradition and before his untimely death had conceived the idea of giving the Library to the world of historical research as a memorial to his father. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "John Carter Brown, Inducted 2012". Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  3. ^ Miyoshi, Masao (January 1, 2009). Trespasses: Selected Writings. Duke University Press. ISBN 0822392488. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  4. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  5. ^ "Article 12 -- No Title". The New York Times. 19 July 1852. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  6. ^ Times, Special To The New York (1 March 1909). "Mrs. John Carter Brown.". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  7. ^ "$30,000,000 TO MRS. SHERMAN; Reported Bulk of Mrs. John Carter Brown's Estate Goes to Daughter.". The New York Times. March 4, 1909. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  8. ^ a b "DEATH OF HAROLD BROWN.; He Was Ill on His Arrival on the Oceanic, and Died Last Night.". The New York Times. 11 May 1900. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  9. ^ "YESTERDAY'S WEDDINGS.; BROWN -- SHERMAN.". The New York Times. 5 October 1892. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  10. ^ "Wm. Watts Sherman Dead. Prominent in New York Society and Father of Lady Camoys". New York Times. January 23, 1912. Retrieved 2011-03-14. 
  11. ^ "DEATH OF JOHN CARTER BROWN.". The New York Times. 11 June 1874. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 
  12. ^ "BEQUESTS TO BROWN UNIVERSITY.". The New York Times. 19 June 1874. Retrieved 9 February 2017. 

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