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Son and Heir: John and James Brown
One thing that a great number of John’s correspondences bring light to is his relationship with his son, James. James was the oldest of John’s children (16 years separated him from the youngest child, Alice) and was born in 1761. Not only the oldest, James was also the only son. When considering the traditional roles of the time it is not at all surprising that John saw James at the future of his business enterprise, and sought to mold him into a businessman.
One letter that is illustrative of John and James’ relationship, and that helps make both seem familiarly human, is a letter from John to James dated June 13th, 1779. At this time James was eighteen years old and attending college at Harvard. The letter opens with praise at the news John has heard of the progress of his sons’ education, saying, “I am Glad to be informed…that you are Ingaged in prosecuting the French Language” and “I earnestly recommend that you make Yourself master of the Language…as well as Every other Branch of your Studdys” at Harvard.
From this point, like many communications between a parent and a child at college, this letter contains a series of what can only be described as guilt trips. One day, he says, “you will repent, to[o] late, of Every miss Spent Hour” of college. After detailed family and business updates, John teasingly chastises James for not writing often enough: “Perhaps Some Hours of Your Time might not be Idly Spent in writing to me, but If I was to Judg…I Should Conclude that You are of a Different Opinion, as I have not had the pleasure of one Line from you” since leaving home. He charges him to write “Every week without Fail” to further stress the point. A request to call more often is something a lot of students can probably relate to.
John’s hopes for the young James are clearly established when he urges his son to “Give that Attention to Business which I so Ardently have Ever Indevered to Inculcate in Your mind & Disposition.” This is no exaggeration; every letter contains a lengthy summary of the most current news of the various ships and operations that the elder Brown invested in, no doubt to train him to think like a good businessman. The balance of praise and advice, desire for more news, the concerns about whether James is keeping the right company and fears over whether he has been raised with the right skills in this letter all mirrors the concerns of many modern parents seeing their child away from home for the first time.
After graduating, rather than returning to Providence to help his father run his many operations, James left Cambridge and traveled South, spending time in such important and growing places of the time as Philadelphia and Baltimore. Another letter from John to James dated October 5th, 1782 is indicative of a new phase in their father-son relationship. As James moves off to ever-growing independence, John seems all the more worried. He cautions “Beware of Temptation” because “an undue advantage may be tacon [taken] of your absesen from Your Friends.” He even worries enough to add to the letter a little prayer, asking god to bless “my Only Son & Safely Return him in Due time to his parents & Friends” following his travels. What motivates this outpouring of worry? James is 21 and far from home, perhaps the fears come from the fact that John’s oldest brother (also named James) died in far away in Virginia at age 26.
Just over a month later, John seems to have accepted his son’s resistance at joining the family business, evidenced by another letter from John to James dated November 11th, 1782. Indeed, his dreams for his only son are even bigger now, “as you do not incline to [be] a Merchant…The Statesman therefore is what I with you to be and the sooner you begin…the better you’ please me and all your relations.” Very clearly he has high expectations for his only male heir, and does not let James forget or neglect those expectations. It’s not hard to build a story of a young man, uncertainly trying to make his own way in the world with a loving but watchful father at home.
John encourages his son building a “good Acquaintance with mankind & with more parts of the world than one” to truly complete his education. This emphasis on real-world learning is stressed in many of his letters. He entreats his son “to learn so much of the coutesy as to please the Poor as well as the Rich” and “to be Acquainted with Every kind of Vertueous Men, as well the me of fashion as the man of figure or of Business, both Publick & Privit…to be most Beneficial to your friends & the Community at Large.” It seems that whether or not he followed his father’s advice intentionally, James did meet a great variety of people. In a letter from James to Sally dated February 12th, 1783 sent while he stayed in Baltimore, he describes over the course of just two days meeting a certain French “Prince Gimini” and “his Servant” as well as “a Knight of Malta” and, while dining with a “Mr. Buchanan” meeting “The Ambassador Mr. Jefferson” and having a conversation with him.
In the end, James did follow the path his father had hoped him to, as evidenced by a letter from some years later (letter from John to James dated December 29th, 1799). John responds to two letters from a few days before and remarks “I Feel Happy at their Carrying So much the Appearance of the Man of Buissness.” He goes on to comment on and instruct James in dealing with investments and bonds in various businesses, as well as the dealings of an insurance company, a bank, opening a gin distillery, and the planning of a new road. James has clearly gone from being a young man looking for a place to a valued partner in John Brown’s far-reaching enterprises.
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