Hon. John Brown, Founder of Brown University

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Honorable John Brown

Birthdate: (67)
Birthplace: Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island, United States
Death: September 20, 1803 (67)
Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of James Brown, II and Hope Tillinghast Brown
Husband of Sarah Brown
Father of James Brown; Abigail Francis; Sarah Herreshoff (Brown) and Alice Mason
Brother of Nicholas Brown, Sr; Joseph Brown; Moses Brown; James Brown and Mary Brown

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Immediate Family

About Hon. John Brown, Founder of Brown University

Historical note:

John Brown (1736-1803) was born in Providence, R.I., the fourth son of merchant James Brown II (1698-1739) and Hope (Power) Brown (1702-1792).

He began his working life in partnership with his three brothers (Nicholas, Joseph and Moses) and his uncle as Obadiah Brown & Co., a mercantile firm that traded in rum, slaves, molasses and other goods. The firm was renamed Nicholas Brown & Co. after the death of Obadiah in 1762. This firm in turn dissolved in 1774, and John Brown went into business on his own account. He briefly took on his son-in-law, John Francis, as a partner in 1792, until Francis' untimely death in 1796.

John Brown was among the leading American merchants and businessmen of his day. He remained active in the slave trade and in distilling rum. He was the first Rhode Island merchant to break into the lucrative trade with China by sending the General Washington to Canton in 1787. The ship was one of the first American vessels to arrive in China. Along with his uncle Moses Brown, he led the merchants in Providence to found the Providence Bank in the early 1790s. John was elected the first President of the bank in 1791. John Brown also came into possession in 1795 of 210,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks in New York State which he and his heirs spent considerable time and money trying to develop. His home on Power Street was described by John Quincy Adams as "the most magnificent and elegant private mansion I have ever seen on the continent."<br/>

In addition to his mercantile activities, Brown was active in many civic circles as well. He was an ardent patriot, helped organize the famous burning of the British ship Gaspee in 1772, and served as a civilian on a wide variety of committees during the war. He served in the Continental Congress from 1784 to 1785, and as a United States Representative from 1799 to 1801. He was active in the First Baptist Church, and was treasurer of Rhode Island College (later Brown University) for 21 years. He also promoted the construction of the Washington Bridge across the Seekonk River at Fox Point in 1793, and supervised the paving of city streets.

Brown's involvement in the slave trade took many forms. He had been involved through ownership of slave vessels for most of his life, beginning with shares in his family's Wheel of Fortune in 1759 and Sally in 1764. He began investing outside of the family in slave ships in 1769, and was a partner in several voyages before his death, though the trade was never at the center of his business. 

Beyond owning vessels, Brown was also a vocal supporter of the slave trade, defending it in the press and in Congress, often in direct conflict with his abolitionist brother Moses Brown (1738-1836). In 1797, he was the first Rhode Islander, and quite possibly the first American, to be tried under the Slave Trade Act of 1794. Though he was acquitted of criminal charges, his ship Hope was forfeited and placed at auction. He beat another prosecution in 1798.

In 1799, Brown and others personally paid a call upon Samuel Bosworth, the Surveyor of the Port of Bristol, warning him not to take part in an auction of a slave ship the next morning. Bosworth ignored the thinly veiled threats, and while walking to the auction the next day this federal employee was kidnaped and deposited two miles down the bay. This effectively intimidated the officials, and effectively put a halt to local enforcement of the Slave Trade Act.

John Brown married Sarah Smith (1738-1825) in 1760. They had six children: James IV (1761-1834); Benjamin (1763-1773); Abigail (1764-1766); another Abigail (1766-1821); Sarah (1773-1846); and Alice (1777-1823). James, the only surviving son, never married, and never developed a taste for the family business. Abigail married John Francis (1763-1796), who was briefly in partnership with John Brown. Sarah married Charles Frederick Herreshoff (1763-1819), who was briefly involved in the Brown family business and lost large sums of money on its behalf. Alice married James Brown Mason (1775-1819), a physician and U.S. Congressman.

Bibliography: The Chad Brown Workbook; A Continuing Family Genealogy of the Descendants of Chad Brown. 2nd edition. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1987. Hedges, James B. The Browns of Providence Plantations: Colonial Years. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1952. Rogers, L.E., ed. The Biographical Cyclopedia of the Representative Men of Rhode Island. Providence: National Biographical Publishing Co., 1881. 51, 189.

[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown_(Rhode_Island) Wikipedia]

John Brown I (January 27, 1736 – September 20, 1803) was an American merchant, slave trader, and statesman from Providence, Rhode Island. In 1764, John Brown joined his brothers Nicholas Brown and Moses Brown as well as William Ellery, the Baptist Reverend James Manning, the Baptist Reverend Isaac Backus, the Congregationalist Reverend and later Yale College president Ezra Stiles, former Chief Justice of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Stephen Hopkins and several others as an original fellow or trustee for the chartering of the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (the original name for Brown University).

Early life

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. John Brown sold the United States Navy its first ship, the USS Providence (previously, the Katy), during the American Revolution in 1775. Brown was named as a delegate for Rhode Island to the Continental Congress in 1784-1785 but did not attend.

American revolution

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. 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 under 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 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.

Political activity

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. 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 that prohibited making, loading, outfitting, equipping, or dispatching of any ship to be used in the trade of slaves. Then 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.

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.

Family ties

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 rum, molasses, slaves 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).[6]

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).

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.

  • R.I.H.S. Library
  • John Brown Papers
  • Merchant, of Providence, R.I.
  • Papers, 1743-1829
  • Size: 1 linear foot
  • Catalog number: MSS 312
  • Processed by: Pam Narbeth, 1995
  • Finding aid by Rick Stattler, October 1996
  • USE MICROFILM E445 .R4, part 1, reels 1-2
  • ©Rhode Island Historical Society
  • Manuscripts Division
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Hon. John Brown, Founder of Brown University's Timeline

January 27, 1736
Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island, United States
Age 24
Age 29
September 5, 1773
Age 37
September 20, 1803
Age 67
Providence, Providence County, Rhode Island, United States