Rogues, Rascals, Pillars of Society

John Brown: The cleverest boy in Providence Town


One of Rhode Island's most famous characters, John Brown, was considered a rogue by some, a rascal by others and a pillar of the community by many. Brown was a man who was truly an excellent example of a Rhode Island merchant-adventurer of the 18th century. During his lifetime he made, lost and again made a fortune. He was responsible for the first act of violence in the revolution, was instrumental in getting Rhode Island to ratify the Constitution, and was a significant power in financial circles.

Professor Hedges, in his history of the Brown family, notes of John Brown, "His life abounded in superlatives. It was no mere accident that he sent the first Rhode Island ship to China or that he built the finest house in Providence."

John Brown was a direct descendant of Chad Brown, a man who had joined Roger Williams in his "lively experiment" of religious freedom in 1638. The outstanding contributions of the Brown family began in 1725 when James Brown, grandson of Chad and father of John, expanded the family enterprises by sailing to the West Indies as captain of his new ship, The Four Bachelors. This brought the family into the triangular trade, where sugar and molasses from the West Indies was taken to Rhode Island and made into rum, which in turn could be exchanged for a variety of goods, including slaves from Africa.

The profits were immense, but so were the risks. Within a few years, James built and owned several sloops, built a distillery and owned a slaughterhouse. His younger brother, Obadiah, who was associated with him, built a chocolate factory. When James died in 1739 at age 41, Obadiah assumed the task of training James' four young sons in the family businesses. Obviously, Obadiah did his job well as the brothers, Nicholas, Joseph, John and Moses (called by an early 20th century wit, Nick, Joe, Jack and Moe), expanded the family business into a large mercantile empire.

John, the man closely associated with the Revolution in Rhode Island, is often cited as the most adventurous, daring and, according to his brothers, reckless of the family. He was also ambitious and very sure of himself. As a young lad he wrote in his cipher book, "John Brown, the cleverest boy in Providence town." By 1772, John Brown, then in his 30s, had already earned the reputation of taking risks in both the slave trade and in opposing British trade restrictions. When one of his boats, the Hannah, lured the British revenue schooner, Gaspee, into shallow water, Brown took advantage of the fact that the British ship was grounded. He persuaded one of his captains, Abraham Whipple, to take command, provided the boats, and instigated the action on June 9, 1772 that culminated in the burning of the Gaspee.

John Brown sensed that the Revolution was inevitable, stored up large quantities of saltpeter for gunpowder and directed his workers at the Hope Furnace in Scituate to make a cannon. When war broke out, John Brown became a principal supplier of war materials to the Continental Army and made a fortune as a result.

Brown, a master politician as well as merchant, persuaded the Rhode Island General Assembly to create a Rhode Island Navy in June 1775. By October, Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island's delegate to the Continental Congress, was able to persuade Congress to create a Continental Navy. Hopkins was closely associated with Brown in a number of economic and political enterprises and, as a result, Brown received contracts to build vessels in his shipyards. In addition, Brown financed various privateers and made a considerable fortune from the revolution.

John Brown took an active part in the slave trade long after other members of his family had abandoned it. Abolitionists, such as his brother Moses, Samuel Hopkins and James Manning, succeeded in getting the Gradual Emancipation of Slaves Act passed in Rhode Island, but when they attempted to outlaw the slave trade, John Brown was most instrumental in stopping them. When, in 1787, the abolitionists were successful in getting the General Assembly to pass a law fining any Rhode Islander caught engaging in the slave trade, John Brown ignored it. When Moses Brown, in 1796, brought suit against his brother John, who was caught red-handed in the slave trade, a sympathetic jury refused to convict such an "eminent citizen and noted patriot." When John Brown finally did abandon the slave trade, it was because it was unprofitable rather than because he felt it was immoral.

In 1787 John Brown sent the first Rhode Island ship, General Washington, to Canton, China, and this was the beginning of a most lucrative trade. The wealth accumulated in the China trade placed John Brown in the position of leadership in many areas. In 1791 he invited business leaders in Providence to establish a bank there, making it the fifth town in the United States to have a bank. John Brown was unanimously elected as president, and when Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton asked to have the bank's books examined, Brown refused, claiming that Hamilton had been misinformed of the bank's condition by a "malicious and slanderous attack" by Newport merchants. Hamilton agreed with Brown and the books were not produced.

While John Brown is usually portrayed as an "avid seeker of profit," it should be noted that he was a devoted father and an indulgent grandfather. He was also a supporter of education and religion. In 1775 John Brown was elected treasurer of Rhode Island College (later Brown University) and served in that capacity for 21 years. In addition, he was a major supporter of the First Baptist Church of America and a patron of the arts.

His home on Power Street, which was built under the direction of Joseph Brown, was called by John Quincy Adams "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent." This splendid, three-story, Georgian style house was completed in 1788. It took over two years to complete and is a tribute to its owner. John Brown, ever shrewd, was having some difficulty in collecting debts owed to him.

Rather than suffer a complete loss, he put an ad in the Providence Gazette offering to accept supplies and services for the building of the house in payment of debts. In that manner he was able to save on building expenses and helped his debtors fulfill their obligations.

John Brown, in 1803, described his holdings as "The Homestead House where I now live, being 54 x 50 square...together with all the outhouses; viz, coach house, kitchen, stable, and wood house, with the bathing house." The wooden dependencies have all been destroyed by fire during the 19th century, but the magnificent mansion remains.

Because of Brown's wealth and significant leadership in trade and politics, it became the center of a great deal of formal entertainment and helped establish the direction of the social and artistic growth of Rhode Island.


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