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John Brown was the second youngest of the five Brown brothers, which included James, Nicholas, Joseph and Moses. James died young at age 26, but the other four lived full lives. In fact, Moses was 98 when he died. The brothers were close and collaborated on many ventures. John and Joseph were instrumental in the burning of the British schooner Gaspee in 1772, one of the earliest acts of rebellion in the colonies. John and Nicholas were also heavily involved in privateering during the Revolution. The brothers collaborated most famously (or infamously, perhaps) on the voyage of the Sally in 1764. Many of the slaves being carried on the Sally died during the journey, and the affair deeply affected the Brown family. Moses became a lifelong abolitionist, and Joseph and Nicholas decided to quit the slave trade. John, however, did not. The documents at the John Brown House provide some insight into the dynamic between the five brothers, especially the unusual relationship between John and Moses.
John and Moses Brown undoubtedly had completely contradictory opinions regarding the slave trade. Moses was deeply disturbed by the Sally incident, emancipated his slaves and became one of the foremost advocates for emancipation in Rhode Island. He was involved in the passage towards the early 1790s of a law that banned salve trading in the state’s ports, and John Brown was the first person tried under the law—he was found not guilty, but his boat was impounded. The two brothers, however, maintained a remarkably congenial relationship in light of their differing moral viewpoints. It is clear that Moses held strong convictions and was eager to convince his brother to renounce his involvement in the slave trade. A letter from John to Moses on November 27th, 1786, highlights some of the peculiarities of the brothers’ relationship. John mentions a “Treeteice” (treatise) that Moses sent with his last letter and how he has not had time to read it. In this long letter, John makes a lengthy and rationalized explanation of his views on the slave trade, providing incredible insight into 18th century views in favor of the practice. John tells Moses that he has heard that “Grait Numbers (of) the Slaves are possitively better of(f)…then those who are Left behind.” In terms of giving up the slave trade, he assures his brother that when he is “Convinced, as you are, that its Rong in the Sight of God, I will Immediately Deasist.” Interestingly enough, John predicts the very law that would he would be tried under in a few years, and says that he will be happy to give up his seat in the legislature to Moses, assuring him that “our Different Sentiments Respecting the Guiney Trade (slave trade) will Weigh Nothing in My Mind against your takeg my place in the house.” He concludes by calling Moses his brother and friend, and signs the letter “Your Affectionate Brother.” Even to a modern reader, John and Moses’s relationship is quite unique. In the face of a difference of opinion regarding a major moral issue, the two brothers remained friendly and on good terms. They did, however, have a fierce debate in a series of letters to the editor of the Providence Gazette. It is not necessary to go into detail here about those letters, as their content and arguments are similar to those expressed in John’s earlier correspondence with Moses, but the Gazette letters are in essence a protracted argument between “A Citizen” (clearly John Brown, and later called “A Friend to Reason”) and “A Friend to Freedom” (Moses Brown). It is interesting to see how the brothers’ personal dispute spilled out into the public sphere, since the opinion of these two great men of Providence would undoubtedly have been important to the town’s citizens.
There is a tender testament to the Brown brothers’ interactions in a letter from John to his children dated December 3rd, 1785. In it, John tells his children of his brother Joseph’s death, mentioning how Joseph died “in a Roome…Crowded with his Famely & Friends,” among them “Brothers Nicko and Moses” (James had already died, in 1750). He does admit later in the letter, however, that there is “a Breach…Among the Four Brothers which have So Long Survived.” This letter is from 20 years after the voyage of the Sally, and the Brown brothers certainly had already developed their differences of opinion by this point. But the letter also shows that, despite their differences, the Browns came together in times of hardship.
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Dear Child: John and Sally Brown