Copyright The New York Times
Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution
By Charles Rappleye
400 pages. $27. Simon & Schuster
I grew up in Rhode Island, thinking of my native state as the cradle of freedom. Rhode Island boasted some important firsts: It was the first British colony in North America to separate church from state, the first to have a democratic form of government and among the first to declare independence from the mother country. It was democratic America in the making, the future nation in miniature.
Having briefly attended the Moses Brown School and lived for a time near Brown University, I had a hazy idea of the Browns of Rhode Island as a clan who paved the way to human rights. But reading Charles Rappleye’s “Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution,” a biography of Moses and John Brown, gave me the same kind of jolt I felt when I learned that 12 of America’s presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners. Rappleye’s book provides vivid testimony to the painful fact that the Browns and the tiny state they helped form were indeed all too much like America, fractured between the ideal of liberty and the reality of chattel slavery.
The pugnacious, high-spirited John Brown, born in 1736 (and definitely not to be confused with the later abolitionist), was a Rhode Island business leader and politician whose commercial interests included shipping, rum, banking, iron production – and the slave trade. John’s milder younger brother, Moses, participated in all of these businesses. Like John, Moses owned slaves, but a conversion to the Quaker faith in the early 1770s inspired him to set them free. Thereafter Moses was an ardent abolitionist dead set against the traffic in humans that swelled the coffers of his brother.
Rappleye skillfully details the complex relationship between these brothers, whose differences over slavery tested but never destroyed their friendship. Their loyalty to each other surfaced dramatically during the American Revolution. In 1773, John helped trigger the Revolution by leading a band of Rhode Islanders that destroyed the Gaspee, a British revenue ship. Moses, a pacifist and conscientious objector, was horrified by the war. Still, when John was later captured by the British, Moses boldly entered the fray, sneaking behind enemy lines and negotiating his brother’s release.
Of the two, John was the more adventurous and entrepreneurial. He started one business after another, rarely missing a chance to turn a profit. Moses, before his religious awakening, proved a capable business partner, and it was not long before the brothers were participating in the so-called triangle trade, in which New England rum was shipped to Africa and exchanged there for blacks, who were chained below decks and taken on a miserable voyage across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where they were sold into slavery. The proceeds of the slave sales were invested in molasses and sugar that was shipped back to New England to be made into more rum.
By the mid-18th century Rhode Island had the dubious distinction of being the leader in the North American slave trade. Newport’s ships carried more than 70 percent of America’s traffic in slaves. Many of the state’s leading citizens were slaveholders.
Slavery, John Brown declared, was “right, just and lawful, and consequently practiced every day.” America, he argued, was doing Africans a favor by removing them from what he described as their barbaric homeland.
But by then Moses had become equally prominent as an opponent of slavery. Influenced by Quaker principles of human justice, Moses manumitted his six slaves and made himself a pioneer in the antislavery movement. He formed the first abolitionist society in New England and led the successful campaign to ban the slave trade in Rhode Island.
The Brown brothers engaged in public squabbles, with John indicting abolitionism as “wicked and abominable” and Moses replying in kind. In one of their newspaper exchanges, John predicted that slavery would lead the nation to civil war.
David S. Reynolds, a university distinguished professor at Baruch College, is the author of “John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights.”