The White Sheep of the Brown Family

A descendant examines her ancestry from philanthropists to slave traders

In 2004, a woman named Sylvia went to a symposium hosted by Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. Sitting in the audience, she expected to learn some history about the university, the Brown family, and the Rhode Island slave trade. What actually happened was a surprise: a panelist, talking about the family, said it plainly: “There were no good Browns.” Despite the family’s extensive philanthropy, the speaker argued that their involvement with the slave trade outweighed their good works. 

Sylvia’s curiosity was piqued: were there really “no good Browns”? The eldest of the eleventh generation of the storied family, she decided it was time to dive into its archives and find out more, to “grapple with legacy” as the book’s title claims. Thirteen years later she presents an engrossing, splendid history of her family—and the smallest U.S. state they call their home.

The Brown family first arrived in this country in 1638 in the person of Chad Browne (the E would disappear in the next century). Along with Roger Williams, he was one of the founders of Providence, Rhode Island, and among the first Baptist ministers in the country.

While the early Browns were mostly ministers and farmers, Captain James Brown (1698-1739) broke with tradition: he had little interest in the church and a great deal of interest in commerce. He didn’t even list his children in the family Bible, but rather in his ledger book, much to the distress of his minister father. He was all business, all the time. To a recently widowed woman, he wrote only, “So Shure as we come into the World we must go out.” Then he demanded the payment of her newly dead husband’s debt.

While other English colonies grew commodities that could be traded with the mother country for manufactured goods, such as rice in South Carolina, tobacco in Virginia and Maryland, and wheat in Pennsylvania and New York, New England’s stony soil and short summers made it difficult to produce surplus crops. So New England merchants had to develop other ways to produce profits. In Rhode Island, merchants turned to distilling molasses into rum. They developed a number of triangle trade routes, taking rum to Africa, trading it there for slaves, selling the slaves in the Caribbean for molasses, taking the molasses home, distilling it into rum, and beginning the cycle anew.

The Brown family proved to be extraordinarily good at finding profits in trade, and as the American colonies prospered in the mid-eighteenth century, so did they. They carried on a brisk maritime trade in many commodities, not just molasses and slaves. By 1760 four Brown brothers owned shares in more than 60 of the ships—out of a total of 184 ocean-going and 300 coastal-trade vessels—that sailed out of Rhode Island.

And unlike most other shipowners, the Brown brothers owned manufacturing facilities as well. Among their assets were an iron foundry, a slaughterhouse, shipyards, a rope walk, and a factory to produce candles from spermaceti, the waxy substance found in the heads of sperm whales. They created the first cartel in American economic history by creating the United Company of Spermaceti Chandlers in an effort to stabilize candle prices. British restrictions on American commerce and manufacturing encouraged evasion of the law, and Rhode Island, with its very long coastline relative to its geographic size, excelled at smuggling. The brothers Brown had no hesitation in increasing their profits this way.

When the French and Indian War broke out in 1756, the Brown family sent out privateering expeditions to capture enemy ships, an enterprise that, while risky, was very profitable. In the first year, John Brown netted no less than £17,600, a comfortable fortune by the standards of the day. By 1760, the Brown family was seriously rich. The family would later build its fortune by birthing the American textile industry. Family leader Moses Brown encouraged the move into manufacturing, hoping to shift Rhode Island away from what he called “the Guiney Traders who disgracefully Continue in the Beaten Track of that inhuman traffick.”

In his abhorrence of the slave trade, Moses found himself in sharp disagreement with his brother John, who saw nothing wrong with what he regarded as simply an aspect of “God’s will.” He reminded Moses that his own fortune had come from their Uncle Obadiah’s estate, “which was got from the labor of slaves…. I condemn your partiality, that you are so unwilling that others should acquire property in the same way yours was got.”

The major benefactions of the Brown family began with the university named for them. In 1804 the board of the College of Rhode Island passed a resolution stating that if anyone donated $5,000 to the college within a year, he could choose the name. Nicholas Brown Jr., already the college treasurer as his father had been before him, gave the money. This sum may not sound like much to have a great institution of learning named for you, but at that time, tuition was only $12 a year. By the time of his death, Nicholas would give a total of $160,000, a fortune by the standards of the early nineteenth century.

Besides the big gifts to major institutions such as Brown University, Nicholas was well-known for his quiet charity on a personal level. He paid for the funerals of the indigent, often attending them personally. He would take food to needy families and give orders to local butchers at Thanksgiving to see that poor families had what was needed for a good dinner.

His son, John Carter Brown, became a noted book collector, especially of books on the discovery, exploration, and settlement of the Americas. He then left the collection, which today amounts to 50,000 priceless volumes, along with an endowment and money for a building, to Brown University.

More recently the author tells the story of the auction of her father’s desk, a piece in the family collection since the eighteenth century, and on which she had done her homework as a child. The proceeds went to pay for the restoration of the Nightingale-Brown House in Providence and its conversion into a center for visiting scholars. The desk sold for $11 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece of furniture.

In the end, Brown’s opinion of her family legacy is mixed. What she found was “a great deal to be proud of, a considerable amount to be less than proud of, and a certain amount that simply defies attempts at rational analysis.” That, I imagine, would pretty well describe most families over the centuries as moral standards have evolved. But the story of Sylvia Brown’s family is also a story of daring enterprise, great success, and impressive philanthropy.