Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,294

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,294


This is the grave of Moses Brown.

Born in 1738 in Providence, Rhode Island, Brown grew up in the Rhode Island merchant elite. That meant the slave trade. It also meant whaling, but it was the slave trade where the money was. They were all-in. The big money of Rhode Island goes back to slavery and those mansions in Newport? That’s where the money comes from, at least for a lot of them. Brown inherited all this money by 1762. His father had died a long time before that and he was raised by his uncle, who evidently didn’t have sons of his own, though a daughter married Moses. What’s marrying your first cousin in the 18th century? Brown had brothers, but it was he who was the executor of the state. They founded Brown University together. It’s worth noting here that while Brown has done a good job of now acknowledging its role in the slave trade, there are skeptics who say, and I think this is probably correct, it’s serving as a way to talk about racism without actually doing anything about racism, i.e., the usual DEI stuff. Plus it’s good PR.

Anyway, the Browns were a strongly Baptist family. But Moses converted to the Quakers and this is important for him. The Quakers were moving against slavery by the mid 1760s. But this was where the Brown money came from. So he had to deal with this reality. He also had to deal with the growing revolutionary sentiment during these years and was generally supportive of that, though was really something of a moderate rather than a Samuel Adams type full-fledged rabble rousing revolutionary. But he actively opposed the Stamp Act and the other British attempts to raise money from their tax-hating colonies across the Atlantic.

However, he was very skeptical of the radicalism of the colonists and really wanted a moderated solution to the problem. His brother John, who was deeply committed to the slave trade, was also a radical and arrested in the Gaspee incident, which is the Rhode Island version of the Boston Tea Party but trashier, which fits Rhode Island. In short, the Gaspee was a British customs schooner than ran aground in Narragansett Bay in 1772 and John Brown was one of the people who rowed out to burn it to the ground, angry that not only it was enforcing taxes, but it was enforcing taxes on slave ships. Moses got his brother out of prison.

During the American Revolution, Brown, to the best of my knowledge, was more of a passive supporter. In any case, he mostly stayed out of politics during the Revolution. Instead, he did more to deal with his own growing anti-slavery. Around 1773, he broke with his brothers and refused to have anything more to do with the slave trade. He was also a slave owner and he freed the last of his slaves in that year. Rather than run for office or something during the war, he became the state’s most prominent abolitionist. In 1783, he petitioned the state legislature to end slavery in the state. He traveled around New England to build up abolitionist networks. He had more success in 1787 when he pushed forward a law in Rhode Island that passed, banning any resident of the state from being involved in the slave trade. I suppose by this time he wasn’t even talking to his brothers, who unquestionably opposed this. In fact, his brother John was the first American prosecuted for violating the federal law against slave importation after the Slave Trade Act of 1794. Moses then helped found the Providence Society for Abolishing the Slave Trade to actually enforce the new law, since there was no way the state had the wherewithal to do something like this at the time.

Brown was mostly retired from business by this time, but he was always interested in a good opportunity. He heard about the British factory system and was interested in how that would work in the United States. It was illegal for people who knew the details of the factory system to leave Britain, but this attempt by the British to keep a monopoly was never going to work. So he hired a recent English immigrant named Samuel Slater, who had basically memorized the factory system and thus wasn’t carrying any written documents that could get him in trouble, to build a modern factory. This, partly finished in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790 and fully operational by 1794, indeed became the first factory in the United States. You can still tour it today and I recommend doing so if you ever find yourself in the Providence area, as Pawtucket is just north of the city. Brown was a pretty silent partner, though his son was more active. Both he and Slater got very rich off the new factory system. Lest you think that Brown is some saint for his abolitionist work, understand that he and Slater were highly invested in child labor in the new factories. Slater himself had worked as a child in these factories; neither saw anything wrong with a 10 year going to labor in the factories.

Brown had the money coming in hand over fist and so he involved in himself in whatever struck his fancy. He pushed for the ratification of the Constitution in Rhode Island, which was a very difficult proposition. The state was a major reason the Articles of Confederation failed so badly, since it would just veto nearly everything out of principle. There was strong anti-centralization politics in Rhode Island and fears of the new central government were very strong. That’s why it is the 13th state. It did not ratify until 1790. It hadn’t even bothered sending a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, so opposed as it was on principle to it. So, Brown doing work to get the state to ratify it, which again, was after George Washington had already been president for a year, was good. He invested in banks and bridges and other key infrastructure to build a capitalist society in the state. He also was a major supporter of vaccinating against smallpox and promoting sanitation initiatives to fight the 1797 yellow fever epidemic in the state.

Later in life, Brown opposed the War of 1812. That placed him in common ground with many New Englanders who were pro-British, but for Brown, long a devout Quaker by this time, it was a pacifist stance, not an anti-French or anti-Madison stance that moved him. He founded the Rhode Island Peace Society and refused to pay taxes that would go to the war effort. He also founded what is today the Moses Brown School, a major prep school in the middle of Providence. It’s a nice campus, though the rich people who send their schools there instead of the city’s public schools are mostly liberal racists.

Brown lived a long, long life. It was finally an attack of gastroenteritis that killed him in 1836, at the ripe old age of 97.

Moses Brown is buried in North Burial Ground, Providence, Rhode Island.

If you would like this series to visit other American Quakers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Herb Pennock, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the great As teams of the 1910s and Yankees teams of the 1920s, is in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and Thomas Kelly, the educator and mystic, is in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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