Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Brown University

Americans in the nineteenth century referred to slavery as “the peculiar institution,” but historically it is not peculiar at all. On the contrary, it is a virtually universal feature of human history. The oldest surviving system of written laws, the Code of Hammurabi, includes regulations about slavery, as does the Old Testament. Slavery was ubiquitous in the classical world; about a third of the inhabitants of ancient Athens were slaves, roughly the same proportion as in the antebellum American South. Slavery existed in the Muslim world (usually as a status reserved for non-Muslims) and in Mesoamerica, in Africa and Asia, and in western and eastern Europe. (The English word “slave” derives from “Slav.”) Nor is slavery simply a matter of the past. Though slavery and slave trading are universally prohibited in national and international law, they remain endemic in the world today. While estimates vary, at least eight-hundred thousand and perhaps as many as three million people are trafficked annually, most of them women and children.6

Slavery in Historical Perspective

Slavery was the cornerstone of the colonization of the Americas. Of the ten million or so people who crossed the Atlantic before 1800, about eight and a half million — roughly six of every seven people — were enslaved Africans. By the time the transatlantic trade was finally suppressed in the 1860s, a total of ten million to twelve million Africans had been carried into New World slavery, while an estimated two million more had died in the passage. The vast majority was imported into the sugar colonies of the Caribbean and South America, where massive mortality of enslaved workers necessitated a constant infusion of laborers. (The average life expectancy of a slave on a Caribbean sugar plantation was less than seven years.) Brazil alone imported at least four million enslaved Africans over the centuries of the trade. Between five-hundred thousand and six-hundred thousand enslaved Africans were imported into mainland North America, including what is today the United States.7

Different societies in history developed their own understandings of slavery, as well as their own laws and customs for regulating it. But whatever the local variations, there were certain commonalities that marked slavery as a distinct condition. Slaves everywhere were subject to physical and sexual abuse. They typically served for life and often passed that status on to their children. Perhaps most important, slaves were outsiders, not only in the literal sense of coming from outside the societies in which they were held but also in the sense of being excluded from the basic recognition and rights enjoyed by those who were free. In the United States, for example, the freeborn could contract marriages, buy and sell property, testify in court, and make basic decisions about the welfare of their children. Slaves could do none of these things. In the words of scholar Orlando Patterson, slavery was a form of “social death.”8

Slavery and Race

The dishonor and degradation associated with enslavement inevitably gave rise to contempt for the people who were enslaved. Though the particulars differ, slaves throughout history have been stigmatized as inferior, uncivilized, bestial. Few if any societies in history carried this logic further than the United States, where people of African descent came to be regarded as a distinct “race” of persons, fashioned by nature for hard labor. This process took time. Initially, American colonists justified the enslavement of Africans chiefly in terms of religion and culture; Africans were described as “heathenish” and “savage.” But by the era of the American Revolution such rationalizations had been supplanted by an explicit theory of race, in which Black people’s inferiority was assumed to be innate and ineradicable, a product not of their circumstances or condition but of their physical nature. An early anti-slavery treatise, published in the Providence Gazette in 1773, explained the process succinctly. “Slave keeping,” the anonymous author wrote, was a “custom that casts the most indelible odium on a whole people, causing some…to infer that they are a different race formed by the Creator for brutal service, to drudge for us with their brethren of the stalls.”9

This process of dehumanization was abetted by developments in American law. In contrast to the plantation colonies of Spain and Portugal, which inherited legal definitions of slavery through the Catholic Church and the tradition of Roman-Dutch law, settlers in mainland North America were left to fashion their own slave codes. And the laws they fashioned, beginning in Virginia in the 1620s and continuing through the Civil War, were historically unprecedented in their complete denial of the legal personality of the enslaved. Slaves in North America were chattel, no different in law from horses, handlooms, or other pieces of disposable property. The North American colonies were also highly unusual in tracing slave descent through the maternal rather than paternal line, a system that ensured, in practice, that most children of “mixed” ancestry would be themselves enslaved. This descent rule, first enacted by colonial legislatures in Virginia and Maryland in the 1660s, would have an enduring effect on American culture, laying the foundations of our distinctive binary system of racial classification, in which even partial African ancestry — one drop of blood, in the terms of the notorious Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 — renders an individual categorically Black.10

Slavery, the author declared, “casts the most indelible odium on a whole people, causing some … to infer that they are a different race formed by the Creator for brutal service, to drudge for us with their brethren of the stalls.”

If American slavery has any claims to being historically “peculiar,” its peculiarity lay in its rigorous racialism, the systematic way in which racial ideas were used to demean and deny the humanity of people of even partial African descent. This historical legacy would make the process of incorporating the formerly enslaved as citizens far more problematic in the United States than in other New World slave societies.

Forgotten History: New England and Slavery

Most Americans today think of slavery as a southern institution. New Englanders, in particular, have contrived to erase the institution’s presence from their collective memory. But slavery existed in all thirteen colonies and, for a time, in all thirteen original states. In New England, the first slaves were Native Americans, captured in the escalating conflict between settlers and the Indigenous population. New Englanders began to import Africans in 1638, initially by exchanging Native Americans captured in the Pequot War for Black slaves from the West Indies. This commerce was revived, on a far greater scale, in the aftermath of King Philip’s War in the 1670s, and it continued intermittently through the early eighteenth century. One of the programs sponsored by the Steering Committee brought together descendants of Native American captives transported from Rhode Island to Bermuda more than three hundred years ago with representatives of more than a dozen Indigenous nations in the eastern United States and Canada.11

Initially, New Englanders drew a moral distinction between purchasing enslaved Africans from the West Indies (who were assumed to have been captured in war and thus legitimately held) and the actual business of enslaving Africans. Thus the arrival of the first shipload of West Indian slaves in 1638 occasioned no scruples, but when a Massachusetts ship returned from West Africa seven years later with a cargo of new captives it provoked a scandal. The captain and crew were arraigned by the General Court for the “haynos and crying sinn of man stealing” and the captives were returned to Africa at colony expense. This distinction was soon lost, however, and Massachusetts ships began to embark for West Africa.12

Slavery and Abolition in Rhode Island

The first enslaved Africans entered Rhode Island sometime after 1638. Though their numbers were initially very small, they were conspicuous enough to attract the attention of the Rhode Island General Court, which in 1652 passed a law abolishing African slavery. According to the statute, which was evidently never enforced, “no black mankinde” could be forced to serve a master for “longer than ten years,” after which they would be “free, as the manner is with English servants.” In 1659, the legislature acted again, banning the further importation of African captives. But this statute too went unenforced, and the enslaved population continued to grow, as did the gulf between white servants and Black (and Native American) slaves. By the middle of the eighteenth century, about ten percent of Rhode Islanders were enslaved. The greatest concentrations of slaves lived in Newport, the colony’s premier port, and in South County, which was home to a thriving plantation economy.13

Slavery endured in Rhode Island for nearly two hundred years. As in Pennsylvania, New York, and most other northern states, the institution ended gradually. In 1784, the Rhode Island legislature enacted a Gradual Abolition Act, which specified that every person born in the state after March 1 of that year would be free. While representing a significant victory for the state’s embryonic anti-slavery movement, the law also showed considerable deference to slaveowners. It did nothing to alter the status of those born before the specified date, who continued to serve their owners for life. Nor did it immediately alter the circumstances of freeborn children, who were compelled to serve their mothers’ owners for twenty-one years before assuming their promised status. But the law did put the institution on the road to extinction in the state. The final few slaves in Rhode Island disappeared, either through death, manumission, or sale out of state, in the early 1830s.14

The Rhode Island Slave Trade

Rhode Island’s distinction lay not in slavery but in the leading role that the colony and state played in the transatlantic slave trade. Though Rhode Islanders lagged behind their Massachusetts neighbors in entering the trade, they soon made up for their slow start. The first recorded transatlantic slaving voyages from the colony embarked in the early years of the eighteenth century. By the close of the trade, more than a century later, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages, carrying over one-hundred thousand Africans into New World slavery. While such totals are far smaller than those amassed by the Portuguese, British, Spanish, and French, they are extraordinarily high in the American context. In all, about sixty percent of slave trading voyages launched from North America — in some years more than ninety percent — issued from tiny Rhode Island. As we shall see, nearly half of the Africans transported by Rhode Islanders were trafficked illegally, by ships operating in defiance of a 1787 state law prohibiting residents of the state from trading in slaves; federal statutes of 1794 and 1800 barring Americans from carrying slaves to ports outside the United States; and the 1807 Congressional act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade.15

Some of those carried on Rhode Island ships were brought back to Rhode Island; the streets of Newport were literally paved by revenues generated from a duty on slave imports. The vast majority, however, ended up farther south, in the sugar-producing colonies of the Caribbean and, later, in the southern states. In the colonial period, Rhode Island was one corner of what contemporaries called the “triangle trade,” in which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island and distilled into rum, which was then carried to West Africa and exchanged for captives, to produce more sugar, more rum, and more slaves. In 1764, the year of Brown University’s founding, Rhode Island boasted some thirty rum distilleries, including twenty-two in Newport alone.16

While the vast majority of enslaved Africans carried on Rhode Island ships were transported to the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, some were brought back to Rhode Island. The streets of Newport were literally paved with revenues generated from a duty on slave imports.

A few Rhode Island families made substantial fortunes in the trade. William and Samuel Vernon, Newport merchants who would later earn a place in American history for their role in financing the creation of the United States Navy, sponsored more than thirty African slaving ventures. The D’Wolfs of Bristol were the largest slave trading family in all of North America, mounting more than eighty transatlantic voyages, the vast majority of them in defiance of state and federal law. (The primary destination for captives on D’Wolf ships was Cuba, where the family owned its own sugar plantation.) But the real story of the Rhode Island slave trade is not of a few great fortunes but of extremely broad patterns of participation and profit. Even with the inevitable gaps in the documentary record it is possible to identify by name some seven hundred Rhode Islanders who owned or captained slave ships. The roster includes virtually every substantial merchant, as well as many ordinary shopkeepers and tradesmen, many of whom purchased shares in slaving voyages, much as Americans today buy shares in corporations.17

Even those who did not invest directly in the trade often depended on it for their livelihoods. Boatwrights built ships, and blacksmiths and blockmakers fitted them out. Sail lofts and ropewalks prepared canvas and rigging. Caulkers scraped and sealed hulls. Carpenters built shelving below decks to hold the ships’ human cargo. Distilleries churned out rum, sealed in barrels fashioned by coopers from local pine, oak, and iron. Factories and foundries produced whale oil candles, cloth, and iron bars, all important trade goods on the West African coast. Farmers supplied beef, flour, tobacco, and onions. In the words of historian Rachel Chernos Lin, one of the speakers sponsored by the Steering Committee, the Rhode Island slave trade was literally the business of “the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker.”18

Portait of white-haired man wearing a yellow vest with a red brick building in the background.

Governor Stephen Hopkins, signer of the Declaration of Independence and first Chancellor of the College of Rhode Island, is portrayed with the College Edifice in the background.

Portrait by John Philip Hagen, 1999. The Brown University Portrait Collection.

The West Indian Provisioning Trade

Even this litany does not capture slavery’s importance to the Rhode Island economy. As important as the triangle trade was, it was dwarfed by the bilateral trade between Rhode Island and the slave colonies of the Caribbean. So profitable was sugar in the eighteenth century that most Caribbean colonies produced little else, relying on imports for everything from food to furniture. Rhode Island dominated this trade, operating, in essence, as the commissary of the Atlantic plantation complex. Rhode Island ships cleared for the Caribbean on an almost daily basis, their holds laden with a cornucopia of local products — beef and butter, hay and horses (Narragansett pacers were much prized by Caribbean planters), candles, shoes, iron, barrel hoops and staves, timber, tar, tobacco, and vast quantities of salt cod, the staple protein source of West Indian slaves. (Rhode Islanders sometimes referred to cod as “Jamaica fish,” reflecting a clear understanding of the commodity’s destination.) Between the transatlantic slave trade and the West Indian provisioning trade, it is hard to imagine any eighteenth-century Rhode Islander whose livelihood was not entangled, directly or indirectly, with slavery.19

Slavery and the Coming of the American Revolution

Rhode Island’s dependence on slavery was vividly revealed in 1764, the year that saw the founding of the College of Rhode Island and the onset of the imperial crisis between Britain and its thirteen mainland colonies. The Seven Years War between Britain and France had just ended, and the British Parliament, facing a large deficit, announced its intention to begin collecting a duty, previously unenforced, on imported sugar and molasses. The result, as every American schoolchild learns, was a wave of protests against “taxation without representation,” culminating in the colonies’ declaration of independence in 1776. Rhode Islanders stood in the van of the struggle, drafting the first formal protest to the new duties, a “Remonstrance” that was personally carried to London by Stephen Hopkins, the colony’s governor and chancellor of the new college. The Rhode Island Remonstrance is rightly remembered as a watershed in the coming of the American Revolution, yet the document itself spoke less of liberty than of slavery. The proposed tax, the authors warned, would cripple the Rhode Island economy, destroying not only the Caribbean provisioning trade but also the burgeoning African slave trade. “[W]ithout this trade, it would have been and will always be, utterly impossible for the inhabitants of this colony to subsist themselves, or to pay for any considerable quantity of British goods,” the document concluded.20

Cover page of ‘The Rights of the Colonies Examined’

Stephen Hopkins’ The Rights of Colonies Examined, 1765, was a germinal text in the struggle for American independence.

Brown University Library.

“Liberty is the greatest blessing that men enjoy, and slavery is the heaviest curse that human nature is capable of,” Governor Hopkins wrote, adding that “those who are governed at the will of another, and whose property may be taken from them … without their consent … are in the miserable condition of slaves.” The Brown brothers forwarded a copy of the pamphlet to the governor’s brother, Esek, who was then on the coast of Africa aboard the Sally.

The Rhode Island Remonstrance encapsulated the great paradox of American history, avowing principles of liberty and self-government while simultaneously defending Americans’ right to profit from slavery and the slave trade. The paradox was even more pointed in Stephen Hopkins’ The Rights of Colonies Examined, one of the most influential pamphlets of the revolutionary era, published a few months later. Sounding a note that would be endlessly repeated over the next twelve years, Hopkins denounced the new tax not simply as an assault on colonists’ rights but as an attempt to reduce them to slavery. “Liberty is the greatest blessing that men enjoy, and slavery is the heaviest curse that human nature is capable of,” he wrote, adding that “those who are governed at the will of another, and whose property may be taken from them … without their consent … are in the miserable condition of slaves.” Hopkins, who was a slaveowner at the time, evidently saw no irony in advancing this argument. Nor did the Brown brothers, who forwarded a copy of the pamphlet — “for your amusement” — to the governor’s brother, Esek, who was then on the coast of Africa aboard the slave ship Sally.21

The Founding of Brown University

This was the world into which Brown University was born. The nation’s seventh oldest university, Brown was formally chartered in 1764 as the College of Rhode Island. Its initial mission was to train Baptist clergymen, though it was open to students of all religious persuasions, in keeping with Rhode Island’s tradition of religious liberty. The school’s founding documents contain no references to slavery, which most at the time regarded simply as a fact of life, irrelevant to the University’s mission. If any contemporaries were surprised or troubled when the school’s first president, Rev. James Manning, arrived in Rhode Island accompanied by a personal slave, they seem never to have said so publicly. (Manning manumitted the man in 1770, shortly before the College moved to its current site in Providence.) And while the religious composition of the College’s governing Corporation generated controversy — Baptists were eventually guaranteed a majority of seats on both the Board of Fellows and the Board of Trustees, with smaller allocations for Congregationalists, Anglicans, and Quakers — the presence of slave traders among the group occasioned no discussion. While no precise accounting is possible, the Steering Committee was able to identify approximately thirty members of the Brown Corporation who owned or captained slave ships, many of whom were involved in the trade during their years of service to the University.22

Detail of handwritten building records

Building records of 1770 for the College Edifice, now known as University Hall, show that in addition to funds, donors pledged labor by their slaves. The construction crew included Pero, a sixty-two-year-old African owned by Henry Paget; Job, a Native American; and Mingow, apparently a free African.

The Rhode Island College miscellaneous papers, Brown University Archives.

Slavery’s role in Brown’s early history is revealed more palpably in the College Edifice, what we today call University Hall, the oldest building on campus. As University curator Robert Emlen explained in a presentation sponsored by the Steering Committee, the construction of the building was financed through a public subscription campaign. With hard money in short supply, many donors paid their pledges in kind. Wood for the building, for example, appears to have been donated by Lopez and Rivera, one of the largest slave trading firms in Newport. A few donors honored pledges by providing the labor of their slaves for a set number of days. Emlen has found evidence of four enslaved men who labored on the building, including “Pero,” the bondsman of Henry Paget, “Mary Young’s Negro Man,” “Earle’s Negro,” and “Abraham,” apparently the slave of Martha Smith. Pero Paget, who was sixty-two years old at the time, is buried in Providence’s North Burial Ground; the circumstances and fate of the others remain unclear. A facsimile print of the construction records, including references to enslaved workers, has hung for years on the first floor of University Hall, more or less unnoticed. It is an apt metaphor for a history that has long hidden in plain sight.23

A printed template of a bill of lading, which features an ornate drop cap that incorporates an image of a ship with three masts. The bill of lading was filled out by hand.

The bill of lading for the slave ship Sally, on its departure for Africa in September, 1764, lists thirty boxes of spermaceti candles, 1,800 bunches of onions, and 17,274 gallons of New England rum.

The Brown Family Business Records collection at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Endowing the University

Determining what percentage of the money that founded Brown is traceable to slavery is impossible; part of the point of the preceding discussion is that slavery was not a distinct enterprise but rather an institution that permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island, the Americas, and indeed the Atlantic world. But there is no question that many of the assets that underwrote the University’s creation and growth derived, directly and indirectly, from slavery and the slave trade. Links with slavery are particularly apparent in the University’s first endowment campaign, which the governing Corporation launched in the late 1760s. The task of raising an endowment was assigned to Morgan Edwards and Hezekiah Smith, both Baptist ministers and members of the Corporation. Edwards sailed to Britain, where, despite the escalating imperial conflict, he succeeded in raising nearly nine hundred British pounds sterling, the equivalent of more than $150,000 in today’s money. Smith sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, where over the course of several months he secured pledges for more than £3,700 Carolina pounds, the equivalent of about $50,000 today.24

Henry Laurens, who would later succeed John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress, ran the largest slave trading house in North America. In the 1750s alone, his Charleston firm oversaw the sale of more than eight thousand enslaved Africans. He donated £50 to the endowment campaign.

In the present context, Smith’s destination is the pertinent one, for South Carolina was the heartland not only of the Baptist religion but also of American slavery. Even a cursory glance at Smith’s subscription book, which is deposited in the archives of the Rhode Island Historical Society, leaves little doubt of the origins of the money that he raised. There are literally hundreds of examples, but let us mention only a few. Lieutenant Governor William Bull, the first name on the list, owned a three-thousand-acre rice and indigo plantation on St. Helena Island. He donated £50. Gabriel Manigault, a merchant and planter who owned more than forty-thousand acres and nearly five hundred slaves, donated £100. Manigault was well known to Rhode Island’s mercantile elite, having handled the sale of the first enslaved Africans brought to South Carolina on Rhode Island ships. Henry Laurens, a planter and political leader who would later succeed John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress, ran the largest slave trading house in North America. In the 1750s alone, his firm, Austin and Laurens, handled the sales of more than eight thousand Africans. Laurens donated £50 to the College of Rhode Island.25

The Brown Family and Slavery

In its research, the Committee paid particular attention to the University’s namesake family, the Browns of Providence. There is an obvious risk of distortion in focusing on a single family, especially when discussing an institution as pervasive as slavery, but the history of the University is so densely interwoven with the life of this extraordinary family that it is impossible to discuss one without the other. At the time of the College of Rhode Island’s founding, there were four Brown brothers, Nicholas, Joseph, John, and Moses, all of whom were enthusiastic supporters of the school. Nicholas was one of the College’s original incorporators, while Moses led the campaign to move the campus to Providence. Joseph, an amateur architect, designed the College Edifice and later served on the faculty as professor of natural philosophy. John laid the cornerstone of the College Edifice and served as treasurer of the Corporation from 1775 until 1796, when he was succeeded by his nephew, Nicholas Jr., who retained the office until 1825. A member of the Class of 1786, Nicholas Jr., was unquestionably Brown’s most generous benefactor, providing the money for several of the buildings that still line the University’s main green. In 1804, Nicholas Jr., donated $5,000 to endow a professorship in rhetoric, in acknowledgment of which the name of the school was changed from the College of Rhode Island to Brown University. This tradition of service was carried into future generations by such people as John Brown Francis, Moses Brown Ives, and John Carter Brown, all of whom gave generously to the University of their time and fortunes.26

There are at least two other reasons to focus on the family. First, the Browns kept the most meticulous records of any mercantile firm in colonial America, virtually all of which are preserved in the John Carter Brown Library on the University campus. These records, more than a quarter million manuscript pages, make it possible to trace the family’s activities, including its involvement with slavery and slave trading, with rare precision. Second and more important, the Brown family publicly split over the question of slavery in the late eighteenth century, with two brothers, Moses and John, conducting a vigorous debate over the morality of the institution, and of the transatlantic trade in particular. Examining this debate, which engulfed the campus and ultimately the nation, provides an ideal vantage on the emergence and evolution of the American anti-slavery movement, as well as on the arguments of those who defended the institution and trade.27

Like other members of their class, the Browns were slaveowners. There are records of Captain James Brown, the brothers’ father, purchasing slaves as early as 1728, and he left four slaves in his estate upon his death in 1739. By the early 1770s, the brothers owned at least fourteen slaves, several of them in common. Moses, who in 1773 became the first of the brothers to renounce slaveholding, seems to have held the largest number, owning six slaves outright, as well as a quarter interest in several others. Most of the men and women owned by the brothers worked as domestic and agricultural laborers, though they were also periodically deployed in other Brown enterprises, including the family’s whale oil candle works, a seasonal business in which labor demands rose and fell quickly. Moses’ decision to manumit his slaves disrupted this arrangement, but the brothers eventually negotiated an agreement in which he supplied his quota of laborers to the chandlery in free workers.28

The Browns and the Slave Trade

By the standards of Rhode Island’s mercantile elite, the Browns were not major slave traders, but they were not strangers to the business either. In 1736, James Brown sent a ship, the Mary, to Africa. The first slave ship to sail from Providence, the Mary carried a cargo of enslaved Africans to the West Indies, returning to Rhode Island with several slaves for the family’s own use. James’ younger brother, Obadiah, who became the four brothers’ guardian after James’ early death, served as supercargo on the voyage, the officer in charge of buying and selling captives. For reasons that remain unexplained, the Browns waited more than twenty years before mounting another African voyage. In the interim, the family was involved in small-scale slave trading — purchasing or selling captives individually or in small lots, usually in the context of provisioning voyages. In 1758, for example, the sloop Speedwell sailed to the French port of New Orleans with a cargo of candles, wine, and ten slaves, along with a single French prisoner. (Prisoner exchanges under “flags of truce” were a ruse used by Rhode Islanders to evade British restrictions on trading with the enemy.) According to records from the voyage, seven of the slaves were sold at auction, while two were given as “presents” to local officials. The fate of the tenth captive is unclear.29

In 1759, the family returned to the African trade, when Obadiah, Nicholas, and John, along with a handful of smaller investors, dispatched a rum-laden schooner, the Wheel of Fortune, to Africa. With war raging between Britain and France, it was a risky venture and it ended in failure. The ship arrived safely on the African coast, but it was subsequently captured by a French privateer. While Obadiah had taken the precaution of insuring the voyage, the loss of the ship still represented a substantial financial setback for the family. For the enslaved Africans on board, the capture of the ship likely made no difference, as they would simply have been carried to the French West Indies and sold there.30

With the restoration of peace in 1763, the Browns decided to return to the African trade. (Obadiah had died the year before, leaving the family business in the hands of the four brothers, trading under the name Nicholas Brown and Company.) The North American economy was in the doldrums, and the brothers needed capital to buy supplies for their candle works, as well as for their newest venture, an iron furnace. With slave labor in high demand throughout the Americas, an African voyage promised a quick and substantial profit. The brothers initially planned a joint venture with Carter Braxton, a Virginia merchant and later signer of the Declaration of Independence, but in the end they elected to proceed by themselves. The result was the voyage of the Sally.31

Black and white portrait of curly-haired man with a ship's mast in the background.

Esek Hopkins, portrayed in a nineteenth-century engraving by J.C. Buttre, was captain of the slave ship Sally and the first commander in chief of the United States Navy.

U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Engraving.

The Slave Ship Sally, 1764–1765

The Sally sailed from Providence in 1764, the year of Brown’s founding. The ship carried the standard African cargo, including spermaceti candles, tobacco, onions, and 17,274 gallons of New England rum. It also carried an assortment of chains, shackles, swivel guns, and small arms to control the human cargo to come. In their letter of instructions, the Brown brothers ordered the ship’s master, Esek Hopkins, to make his passage to the Windward Coast of Africa, to exchange his goods for slaves, and to sell those slaves to best advantage in the West Indies. They also asked him to bring “four likely young slaves,” boys of fifteen years or younger, back to Providence for the family’s own use.32

A printed template for a ship's articles, later filled out by hand. The template includes fields for documenting Time of Entry, Men's Names, Quality, Advance Wages before sailing, Wages per Month, Hospital Money, When discharged, and Wages due.

Articles for the slave ship Sally, 1764, list the names, duties, and wages of each crewman. Esek Hopkins, the brig’s master, was promised £50 per month, plus a “privilege” — a commission — of ten barrels of rum and ten enslaved Africans to sell on his own account. The crew included one “Negro boy,” Edward Abbie, understood to be Hopkins' indentured servant.

The Brown Family Business Records collection at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

The voyage was a disaster in every conceivable sense. Many other merchants had the same idea as the Browns, and Hopkins found the West African coast crowded with slavers, including more than two dozen ships from Rhode Island. The market for rum was glutted and captives were scarce and expensive. Hopkins eventually acquired a cargo of 196 Africans, but it took him more than nine months to do so, an exceptionally long time for a slave ship to remain on the African coast, especially for those confined below decks. By the time the Sally set sail for the West Indies, nineteen Africans had already died, including several children and one woman who “henged her Self between Decks.” A twentieth captive, also a woman, was left for dead on the day the ship sailed.33

The toll continued to mount on the return journey. Four more Africans — one woman and three children — died in the first week at sea. On the eighth day out, the captives rose in rebellion, a fact noted in a terse entry in the ship’s account book: “Slaves Rose on us was obliged fire on them and Destroyed Eight and Several more wounded badly 1 Thye and ones Ribs broke.” In the weeks that followed, death was an almost daily occurrence; according to Hopkins, the captives became “so Despireted” after the failed insurrection “that Some Drowned themselves Some Starved and others Sickened & Dyed.” In all, sixty-eight Africans perished during the crossing, each loss carefully recorded in the account book. Another twenty Africans died in the days after the ship reached the West Indies, bringing the total death toll to 108. (A 109th captive, one of the four “likely lads” requested by the Brown brothers, died en route to Providence.) The survivors, auctioned in Antigua, were so sickly and emaciated that they commanded prices as low as £5 apiece, scarcely one-tenth of the prevailing price for a “prime” slave. The poor returns on the voyage prompted an apologetic letter from the merchant who handled some of the sales. “I am truly Sorry for the Bad Voyage you [had],” he wrote. “[H]ad the negroes been young + Healthy I should have been able to sell them pretty well. I make no doubt if you was to try this market again with Good Slaves I Should be able to give you Satisfaction.”34

Two handwritten pages from the Sally account book, documenting deaths of enslaved people by quantity, gender, age group, and date in August, September, October, and November 1765.

The Sally’s voyage was deadlier than most slaving expeditions departing from Rhode Island in the eighteenth century. At least 109 of the 196 Africans that Captain Esek Hopkins purchased on behalf of the Browns perished, many in a failed insurrection. The Sally’s account book, 1764–1765, records the lives lost: “Slaves Rose on us was obliged fire on them and Destroyed 8. . . . 1 boy Slave Dyed and 1 man Slave Dyed of his wounds on the Ribs . . . ”

The Brown Family Business Records collection at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Aftermath of the Sally

The Browns did not avail themselves of the offer. In the wake of the Sally debacle, three of the four brothers — Nicholas, Joseph, and Moses — withdrew from direct participation in the transatlantic slave trade. Their action appears to have been motivated more by economic than moral qualms: after two failed voyages, they had good reason to believe that slave trading was too risky an investment. There was little evidence of remorse in the letter they sent to Esek Hopkins after learning of the disaster: “[W]e need not mention how Disagreeable the Nuse of your Lusing 3 of yr. Hand and 88 Slaves is to us + all your Friends, but your Self Continuing in Helth is so grate Satisfaction to us, that we Remain Cheerful under the Heavey Loss of our Int[erest]s.” Nor did the experience deter the three brothers from continuing to trade in slave-produced goods, from building a state-of-the-art rum distillery, or from supplying other Rhode Island merchants mounting African voyages.35

One such merchant was their brother John. In 1769, John and two partners dispatched a slave ship, the Sutton, to Africa. John’s determination to continue slaving unnerved his more cautious brothers, and contributed to their decision to dissolve their partnership. “[W]hoever plays any Game … [and] plays the last for the value of the whole gain of the preceding many, will sooner or later lose the whole at one throw,” Moses warned in a 1770 letter to Nicholas and Joseph. While the brothers continued to collaborate on various ventures, most of John’s subsequent trading activities were conducted independently or in partnership with his son-in-law, John Francis. Over the next quarter century, John would sponsor at least three more African slaving voyages.36

The Rise of the Anti-Slavery Movement

While the Brown brothers’ apparent failure to reflect deeply about the Sally disaster seems surprising today, it was characteristic of their era and social class. For most Rhode Island merchants in the 1760s, buying and selling Africans was simply a business — just another species of commerce, though one entailing unusually large risks and rewards. Yet these years also saw the beginnings of a movement to abolish the slave trade, a swelling chorus of voices decrying the transatlantic traffic not simply as cruel and impolitic but as criminal, a violation of the fundamental laws of man and God. The influence of this movement would be felt all across the Atlantic World, nowhere more dramatically than in Rhode Island.

In Rhode Island, as in much of the Anglo-American world, political opposition to slavery was initially synonymous with the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Founded in England in the seventeenth century, Quakerism was a radically egalitarian creed, which preached that every individual could experience the indwelling presence of God, regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth. Such convictions led many in the Society to question the morality of slavery and slave trading. In 1760, the Yearly Meeting in Newport adopted one of the first anti-slave trade resolutions in American history, calling on members “to avoid being in any way concerned in reaping the unrighteous profits of that unrighteous practice of dealing in Negroes and other slaves — in direct violation of the gospel rule which teaches every one to do as he would be done by.” Initially, Rhode Island Quakers stopped short of renouncing slavery itself, merely enjoining members to treat their bondsmen “with tenderness,” including the provision of education and religious instruction for the young. But in 1773, they took this additional step, enjoining all Friends to manumit their slaves or face expulsion from the Society.37

By the time the Quakers finally acted, their once lonely crusade showed signs of becoming a substantial movement. As historian David B. Davis has written, “By the eve of the American Revolution there was a remarkable convergence of cultural and intellectual developments which at once undercut traditional rationalizations for slavery and offered new modes of sensibility for identifying with its victims.” The process clearly had something to do with capitalism: as free labor became more common, other labor relations — indentured servitude, debt bondage, slavery — came increasingly to appear antiquated and anomalous. Enlightenment ideas about human equality and shared human nature also played an important part in this process, as did the rapid growth of evangelical Christianity. The Revolution itself was an important catalyst to anti-slavery thought. With American colonists declaring their beliefs in “liberty” and “natural rights” and denouncing a British plot to “enslave” them, it is not surprising that some were moved to question the plight of those whom the colonists themselves enslaved.38

Detail of a handwritten letter from Moses Brown to Clark and Nightingale

In a letter to merchants Clark and Nightingale, August 1783, Moses Brown recounts his experience with the slave ship Sally.

The Rhode Island Historical Society.

The result, on both sides of the Atlantic, was an outpouring of petitions, pamphlets, and treatises denouncing slavery and the transatlantic trade on both secular and sacred grounds. Some of the most moving statements were written by Black people, who knew firsthand the horrors of slavery and the slave trade. In 1773, for example, officials in Massachusetts entertained a petition from four slaves requesting facilities to purchase their freedom, after which they proposed to resettle in Africa. “The efforts by the legislature of this province in their last session to free themselves from slavery, gave us, who are in that deplorable state, a high degree of satisfaction,” the men wrote, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “We expect great things from men who have made such a noble stand against the designs of their fellow-men to enslave them.” In the years that followed, similar petitions emanated from Black organizations all along the eastern seaboard, including Newport’s Free African Union Society, the nation’s first Black mutual aid association, and its sister body, the Providence African Society.39

Perhaps the most influential of these early anti-slavery essays was Thoughts upon Slavery, published in 1774 by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. First printed in London, the pamphlet was immediately reprinted in Philadelphia and widely circulated in American periodicals, including the Providence Gazette. For Wesley, the transatlantic slave trade was not merely an affront to Christian principles and “the plain law of nature and reason,” but also what future generations would call a crime against humanity — an offense so grievous that it diminished all humankind, not merely its immediate victims and perpetrators. “If this trade admits of a moral or a rational justification,” Wesley wrote, “every crime, even the most atrocious, may be justified.”40

The Conversion of Moses Brown

The appearance of Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Slavery and other anti-slavery essays in the Providence press was almost certainly the work of Moses Brown. In 1773, Moses experienced a severe emotional and spiritual crisis, brought on by the death of his wife, Anna. He withdrew from the family business and deepened his involvement with the Quakers, with whom he had begun to worship during Anna’s illness. (He was formally accepted into the Quaker meeting in 1774.) He also renounced slavery. “I saw my slaves with my spiritual eyes as plainly as I see you now,” he recalled near the end of his life, “and it was given to me as clearly to understand that the sacrifice that was called for of my hand was to give them liberty.” On November 10, 1773, Brown gathered family and friends together and read a formal deed of manumission: “Whereas I am clearly convinced that the buying and selling of men of what color soever is contrary to the Divine Mind manifest in the conscience of all men however some may smother and neglect its reprovings, and being also made sensible that the holding of negroes in slavery however kindly treated has a tendency to encourage the iniquitous practice of importing them from their native country and is contrary to that justice, mercy, and humanity enjoined as the duty of every christian, I do therefore by these presents for myself, my heirs etc. manumit and set free the following negroes being all I am possessed of or any ways interested in.”41

In the years that followed, Moses Brown threw himself into the anti-slavery movement, exhibiting the same energy and entrepreneurial imagination he had exhibited as a businessman. He exchanged letters with a network of anti-slavery correspondents in Britain and the Americas, circulating the latest anti-slavery essays and pamphlets, many of which he paid to have published. He intervened in court cases involving Black people held illegally in bondage, and lobbied friends and neighbors to divest themselves of slavery and the “unrighteous traffic” that sustained it. As a contemporary remarked, the memory of the Sally weighed “heavy on his conscience.” In a 1783 letter to John Clark and Joseph Nightingale, Providence merchants who were rumored to be contemplating sending a ship to Africa, Brown recounted his experience and urged his friends not to repeat his mistake. Had the Sally never sailed, he wrote, “I should have been preserved from an Evil, which has given me the most uneasiness, and has left the greatest impression and stain upon my own mind of any, if not all my other Conduct in life.” Clark and Nightingale, both members of the Corporation of the College of Rhode Island, chose not to heed the advice, dispatching a ship, the Prudence, to Africa in 1784.42

Profile paintaing of an elderly white man in a grey suit and broad-brimmed hat looking out the window.

An elderly Moses Brown was portrayed in the unadorned coat and broad-brimmed hat of a Quaker by Martin Johnson Heade.

The Rhode Island Historical Society.

Anti-Slavery Legislation and Its Limitations

Moses Brown also lobbied for anti-slavery legislation. His efforts met with mixed success. In 1774, the Rhode Island Assembly passed a bill that he had helped to draft prohibiting the direct importation of slaves from Africa into the colony, though only after weakening it with various loopholes and exceptions. A 1775 bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in the colony was defeated. In 1784, with the Revolutionary War over and transatlantic trade stirring back to life, anti-slavery activists returned to the Assembly, presenting a bill to abolish slavery in the state and to end Rhode Island’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade. The second proposal proved more controversial. After a bruising battle, the Assembly enacted Rhode Island’s 1784 Gradual Abolition Act, but it refused to act against the slave trade. “[T]he influence of the Mercantile interest in the House was greatly Exerted,” Brown lamented, “and the Justice of the Subject thereby Overbourn” In 1787, following state elections and a turnover in the composition of the legislature, the prohibition against slave trading was finally adopted. The victory buoyed Brown, but it soon became apparent that little had changed. While the statute prescribed severe penalties for Rhode Islanders who continued to trade in slaves, state officials had neither the will nor the resources to prosecute offenders. After a brief decline in the traffic, the procession of ships to Africa resumed.43

Detail from handwritten commencement address

"We leave for future generations to investigate . . .” Excerpt from James Tallmadge’s 1798 student commencement oration on the evils of the slave trade.

Student essays and orations, Brown University Archives.

Recognizing the limitations of state law, Moses Brown and his anti-slavery allies also pressed for federal legislation. While the recently adopted federal Constitution forbad Congress from interfering with the slave trade into U.S. ports for twenty years — that is, until 1807 — it did not preclude legislation prohibiting Americans from trafficking slaves to foreign ports, a fact that Brown confirmed in a personal interview with the Constitution’s chief author, James Madison. The result was a pair of federal anti-slave trade acts, the first in 1794, the second in 1800, which forbad American citizens from owning, outfitting, investing in, or serving aboard ships carrying slaves to ports outside the United States. But these laws were also ignored by slave traders, nowhere more flagrantly than in Rhode Island.44

Debating the Trade

Moses Brown’s campaign against the slave trade brought him into conflict with many of his friends and former business associates. His chief antagonist was his older brother, John, who emerged as the slave trade’s most vocal defender even as Moses became its most vocal critic. The battle between the brothers first emerged publicly in 1784, when John, representing Providence in the state legislature, led the opposition to the anti-slave trade bill promoted by Moses. The dispute intensified the following year, when John mounted an African slaving voyage, his first since before the Revolution. In an extraordinary series of private letters, the brothers debated the morality of the trade, with Moses urging John to search his conscience and John assuring him that he had done so and found no cause for concern. If Moses’ pleas illuminate the convictions of the emerging abolitionist movement, John’s replies offer a catalogue of contemporary justifications of slavery and slave trading: that Black people were an inferior race, incapable of surviving as free people; that slaves were “positively better of[f]” in America, where they were exposed to Christianity and civilization, than they had previously been in Africa; that the slave trade was the most lucrative commerce in the world, the profits of which should flow into American rather than British coffers. This trade “has beene permitted by the Supreeme Governour of all things for time Immemorial, and whenever I am Convinced as you are, that its Rong in the Sight of God, I will Immediately Dessist,” John wrote in November 1786, “but while its not only allowd by the Supreeme Governour of all States but by all the Nations of Europe … I cannot thinke this State ought to Decline the trade.” A few days later, he dispatched another ship, the brig Providence, to the Gold Coast, where it acquired 88 Africans, 72 of whom survived to be sold in Hispaniola.45

The inhabitants of Rhode Island, especially those of Newport, have had by far the greatest share of this traffic of all these United States. This trade in the human species has been the first wheel of commerce in Newport, on which every other movement in business has chiefly depended. That town has been built up, and flourished in times past, at the expense of the blood, the liberty, and the happiness of the poor Africans; and the inhabitants have lived on this, and by it have gotten most of their wealth and riches.

— Rev. Samuel Hopkins, Providence Gazette, 1787

The conflict between the brothers escalated in 1789, following the establishment by Moses and other anti-slavery activists of a new organization, the Providence Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, for the relief of Persons unlawfully held in Bondage, and for Improving the Conditions of the African Race. As its lengthy title suggests, the new society had several purposes, but its primary object was to bring prosecutions against violators of the state’s recent anti-slave trade law. The announcement of the society’s existence ignited one of the most vituperative political debates in Rhode Island history. John Brown, writing under the pen name “A Citizen,” launched a furious counterattack in the local press, denouncing the society’s founders as religious fanatics and thieves, scheming to impose their personal morality and to “deprive their fellow citizens of their lawful property.” For the next three months, the columns of the Providence Gazette and the United States Chronicle resounded with increasingly personal and abusive exchanges between Brown and leaders of the Abolition Society, with Moses, who signed himself “A Friend,” seeking to mediate. Both sides invoked the authority of the American Revolution, with abolitionists citing the Declaration of Independence’s promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and John Brown emphasizing the sanctity of property rights. Trafficking Negroes was “right, just and lawful,” John insisted, adding: “[I]n my opinion there is no more crime in bringing off a cargo of slaves than in bringing off a cargo of jackasses.”46

Slave trading “has beene permitted by the Supreeme Governour of all things for time Immemorial,” John reminded his brother, adding: “[W]henever I am Convinced as you are, that its Rong in the Sight of God, I will Immediately Dessist, but while its not only allowd by the Supreeme Governour of all States but by all the Nations of Europe … I cannot thinke this State ought to Decline the trade.” A few days later, he dispatched another ship, the brig Providence, to the Gold Coast.

The College Corporation and the Slave Trade

The struggle to abolish the slave trade was not simply a battle between brothers. The dispute divided the entire state, including the fellows and trustees of the College of Rhode Island. Many of the founders of the Providence Abolition Society were members of the College’s governing Corporation. David Howell, the society’s president, had been affiliated with the College since its establishment, serving as tutor, professor, and fellow. (In the early 1790s, he would serve briefly as the school’s interim president.) Thomas Arnold, secretary of the society, also had close ties to the College, having served as secretary of the Corporation. At the same time, the College’s governors included several practitioners and defenders of the slave trade, led by the vocal John Brown, the school’s treasurer. The very first prosecution launched by the Providence Abolition Society in 1789 pitted members of the Corporation against one another — Howell, who read the charge on behalf of the prosecution, and William Bradford, one of the attorneys for the defense. Bradford, a former deputy governor and future U.S. Senator, had a personal interest in the outcome, being the father-in-law of two of the state’s largest slave traders, James D’Wolf and Charles Collins.47

The conflict within the College’s governing Corporation erupted anew following passage of the 1794 federal law prohibiting the carrying of slaves to foreign ports. In 1796, the Providence Abolition Society brought a case against Cyprian Sterry, a member of the College of Rhode Island’s Board of Trustees and Providence’s premier slave trader. In the preceding two years alone, Sterry had sponsored some twenty African voyages. Many of the Africans carried on these ships were sold in the Caribbean, in clear violation of the recent federal statute. Facing a potentially ruinous fine, Sterry settled the case out of court, pledging to leave the trade in exchange for the society withdrawing the prosecution. He remained a member of the Board of Trustees for another seventeen years.48

The Trial of John Brown

Things did not go so smoothly with John Brown, the College of Rhode Island’s treasurer and one of its chief benefactors. In 1795, Brown returned to the African trade, dispatching a ship, the Hope, to the Gold Coast. The voyage proved a profitable one: of the 229 Africans loaded onto the ship,198 survived to be sold in Cuba. The Providence Abolition Society responded by bringing a prosecution. A distraught Moses Brown urged his brother to settle the case, but John, “puffed up” by the slave-trading interests of Newport, refused. Thus did John Brown become the first Rhode Islander, and apparently the first American, prosecuted in federal court for illegal slave trading — a prosecution brought, in part, by his own brother.49

The case ended in a devastating defeat for anti-slavery forces. Though the offending ship was impounded, John Brown triumphed in the ensuing jury trial, emerging with an acquittal and a judgment for costs against the Providence Abolition Society. Because the transcript of the trial has not survived, it is difficult to say precisely what happened, but Moses Brown attributed the verdict to the “Peculiar Turn” of the Newport jury, as well as to other kinds of favoritism “which I forebear to describe.” It should be noted that the presiding judge, Benjamin Bourn, and the federal prosecutor, Ray Greene, were both longtime allies of John Brown, with whom they had served on the Corporation of the College of Rhode Island. While neither appears to have been personally involved in the slave trade, both had close family ties to the trading community; Bourn would later have the rare pleasure of dismissing a case against his brother, a leading Newport trader. Whatever the exact circumstances, the trial had a devastating effect on the Providence Abolition Society, which went into rapid decline.50

Clearly, the North outstripped the South economically because its economy was based on freedom and innovation, not slavery

— “The Reparations Scam,” Providence Journal, August 21, 2002

High Tide of the Rhode Island Slave Trade

The decade between John Brown’s acquittal and the 1807 Congressional act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade marked the peak of the Rhode Island slave trade, with as many as fifty ships per year clearing for Africa. The handful of cases brought to trial almost invariably ended in acquittal. Courts occasionally ordered the forfeiture and auctioning of slave ships, but traffickers observed a gentlemen’s agreement not to bid on one another’s vessels, enabling original owners to repurchase them for as little as $10. In 1799, an embarrassed federal government tried to close this loophole by dispatching an official to bid on a confiscated ship in an auction in Bristol. On the evening before the auction, the official was visited by the ship’s former owners, James and Charles D’Wolf, accompanied by John Brown, who at the time was one of Rhode Island’s representatives in the U.S. Congress. The three tried to intimidate the official into abandoning his charge. The next morning, the official, who had refused to step aside, was abducted by a group of men and bundled on to a waiting ship. (The assailants dressed as Native Americans, a costume presumably intended to recall the garb of the Sons of Liberty during the Boston Tea Party.) The terrified official was eventually released unharmed, but only after the auction, at which a representative of the D’Wolfs repurchased the ship for a nominal sum. No one was ever prosecuted for the kidnapping, which became something of a local joke.51

Kidnapping a federal official was only the most brazen of the slave traders’ offenses. A newly appointed U.S. District Attorney, considered overzealous in enforcing the ban on slave trading, was assaulted on the steps of the local courthouse. A Bostonian who had the temerity to bring a prosecution against a Bristol trader — and the courage to come to the city to testify — had his ear sliced off in a local inn. Always a bloody business, the Rhode Island slave trade had devolved by the end of the eighteenth century into a system of violent organized crime, conducted in defiance of state and federal laws, as well as of the era’s own professed beliefs about the fundamental rights of human beings.52

Kidnapping a federal official was only the most brazen of the Rhode Island slave traders’ offenses. A newly appointed U.S. District Attorney, considered overzealous in enforcing the law against slave trading, was assaulted. A Bostonian who had the temerity to bring a prosecution against a Bristol trader — and the courage to come to the city to testify — had his ear sliced off in a local inn.

Like organized crime in our own time, Rhode Island slave traders depended on public officials turning a blind eye. When the U.S. customs inspector in Newport began to show signs of enforcing federal anti-slave trade laws, John Brown successfully steered a bill through the U.S. Congress declaring Bristol a separate customs district, freeing local slave traders of any obligation to put in at Newport for inspection. After further maneuvering, the post of customs inspector in Bristol was awarded to Charles Collins, one of the city’s most flagrant illegal traders. Like his brother-in-law, James D’Wolf, Collins routinely trafficked slaves to Cuba, where he reportedly owned a sugar plantation. The creation of the separate customs district, and Collins’ appointment as inspector, represented the final triumph of the Rhode Island slave traders. William Ellery Jr., representing Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate, hailed the outcome in a letter to James D’Wolf. “There is now, dear Sir, nothing more to be done for Bristol — everything which she asked is given.” Under Collins, prosecutions stopped and the trade out of Bristol flourished, continuing even after the 1807 Congressional act abolishing the transatlantic trade. How many vessels sailed after 1807 is impossible to say, but there is evidence of slave ships being outfitted in Rhode Island as late as 1819.53

The Slave Trade and Student Life: An Abortive Essay Contest

Brown University grew up in the shadow of the transatlantic slave trade and of the embryonic movement to end it. What effect these circumstances had on the life of students at the College is difficult to say, but there is some suggestive evidence. In 1786, Moses Brown proposed a prize for the best student essay on the slave trade. The suggestion was clearly inspired by a similar contest staged a year before at Cambridge University in England, which had attracted more than two hundred entrants. The winning essay, Thomas Clarkson’s Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African, was immediately republished in English (original entries had been written in Latin) and became the bible of the British anti-slavery movement. Moses Brown obviously did not yet know just how influential Clarkson’s essay would become, but he recognized the potential value of such a contest in shaping American public opinion. He also recognized the likelihood of opposition to the proposal. “How much to the Honour of Rhode Island College would it be if Similar Measures as far as its Infant State would admit were pursued,” he wrote in a letter to President Manning, “but I am aware that the Corporation has a few members who would be against the Subject receiving the sanction of the College…. ” Precisely what transpired is not clear, but the contest was never held. Stymied at home, Moses proposed endowing essay prizes at Harvard, Yale, and the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Whether his offer was communicated to officials at the three schools is uncertain, but in any case, the contests never occurred.54

In 1786, Brown proposed a prize for the best student essay on the slave trade, an idea clearly inspired by a similar contest staged the year before at Cambridge University in England. “How much to the Honour of Rhode Island College would it be if Similar Measures as far as its Infant State would admit were pursued,” he wrote in a letter to President Manning, “but I am aware that the Corporation has a few members who would be against the Subject receiving the sanction of the College.” The contest was never held.

A Student Commencement Oration

Despite such setbacks, some students imbibed the ideas of the anti-slavery movement. Indeed, one of the most compelling anti-slavery speeches in American history was delivered by a College of Rhode Island senior, James Tallmadge, at the 1790 commencement ceremony. For Tallmadge, who would later earn renown as one of the leading opponents of slavery in the U.S. House of Representatives, the transatlantic trade was not only “repugnant to the laws of God” but also a patent violation of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which explicitly stated “that all men were blessed with equal right and privilege and that liberty was the birth right, the Palladium of every individual.” In his address, Tallmadge systematically rebutted the arguments advanced by the trade’s defenders, some of whom were doubtless sitting in the audience: claims that Africans were “captives of lawful wars”; that they were happier in the United States than in their homes; that the trade was essential to the state’s and nation’s prosperity, an argument, he noted, that might “with equal propriety” be offered by a thief explaining why “he could not live in affluence without his neighbor’s wealth.” That Americans at the time could seriously entertain such notions, he added, was a matter “for future generations to investigate.”55

In his oration, Tallmadge took particular aim at the idea of Black racial inferiority, which had already emerged as the primary intellectual justification for slavery. Of all the “specious reasons for importing and holding in bondage the native African,” he declared, none was more absurd than the idea “that one who was formed with a dark complexion is inferior to him, who possesses a complexion more light.” “Should a thing like this be admitted as general,” he continued, “mankind would be at once resolved into an unusual monarchy with some weak puny white-faced creature for the sovereign, and those whose color was furtherest removed from white, though a Newton or … a Washington would be reduced to the most abject slavery.” Such claims, he concluded, could “never be admitted by any except those who are prompted by avarice to encroach upon the sacred rights of their fellow men, and are vainly endeavoring to appease a corroding conscience.”56

Southern Students at Brown

Tallmadge’s oration suggests that students at the College grappled with the great political issues swirling around them. It also reminds us that Brown students’ penchant for speaking plainly to their elders is nothing new. Yet it is also clear that many students at the College lived quite comfortably with the institution of slavery. As the nation’s first Baptist college, the school attracted a large number of southern students, many of them from prominent slaveholding families, and there is little evidence to suggest that their years on campus unsettled their beliefs. Probably the most curious examples are John and George Carter, sons of Robert Carter, the wealthiest planter in Virginia. Though to the manor born, Robert Carter had always felt great uneasiness about slavery, feelings that escalated after his conversion to the Baptist faith in the late 1770s. In 1787, he dispatched his young sons to the College of Rhode Island, with orders that they not return to Virginia until after their twenty-first birthdays. His object, as he explained in letters to President James Manning, was to shield the boys from the corrupting influence of slaveholding society until their characters and consciences were more fully formed. Four years later, Carter answered his own conscience, embarking on the largest private manumission in American history. The process, undertaken gradually to minimize opposition from white neighbors, eventually included some five hundred slaves, the majority of whom attained freedom after Carter’s death in 1804. But if Carter realized his plans for his slaves, his hopes for his sons were unavailing. Both boys returned to Virginia, reclaimed their roles as slaveowners, and set about trying to reclaim their inheritance. John Carter was particularly determined to “overturn and frustrate” his father’s will, often selling individuals immediately before (and in a few cases after) they became free.57

More striking than the presence of southern students on the campus was the procession of New England-born students who headed south after graduation, to earn their fortunes as merchants, lawyers, planters, teachers, and clergymen. The southward migration was facilitated by business links between Rhode Island and the South, as well as by a dense web of family and society ties, particularly with the gentry of South Carolina, many of whose members summered in Newport. Richard James Arnold, who graduated from Brown in 1814, provides a striking example. Arnold was a member of one of Providence’s leading anti-slavery families; his uncle, Thomas, was a Quaker and founding secretary of the Providence Abolition Society. But this did not stop him from marrying a southern woman and settling in the South. As his biographers note, Richard Arnold lived a double life, spending half the year in Providence, where he was a respected businessman, and the other half on his plantation in Bryant Country, Georgia, where his large retinue of slaves cultivated rice and cotton. He was also one of the longest-serving trustees in Brown University history, with a tenure that stretched from 1826 to 1873.58

The Rise of the Rhode Island Textile Industry

The commercial ties between Rhode Island and the South that Arnold embodied highlight one last strand in the University’s long and tangled relationship with American slavery. One of the tactics that Moses Brown hit upon in his fight against the slave trade was to encourage local manufacturing, in the hope that creating new investment opportunities would wean Rhode Island merchants from the slave trade. Manufacturing success, he suggested, would influence “money’d men of Newport and especially the Guiney traders who disgracefully Continue in the Beaten Track of that inhuman Traffick.” In 1789, the same year he founded the Providence Abolition Society, Brown launched a textile manufacturing firm in partnership with his son-in-law, William Almy. A year later, the firm hired Samuel Slater, an English mechanic, who proceeded to build the nation’s first water-powered spinning mill on the Blackstone River. The American Industrial Revolution began within a few miles of the Brown campus, and its chief sponsor was Moses Brown.59

Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, the dark ships move, the dark ships move, their bright ironical names like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth …

— Robert Hayden, Middle Passage, 1945

Some of Brown’s allies were skeptical of his idea that manufacturing might displace the slave trade. “An Ethiopian could as soon change his skin as a Newport merchant could be induced to change so lucrative a trade …  for the slow profits of any manufactory,” one warned. But there was an even bigger problem. Textile mills spun and wove cotton, a commodity produced almost exclusively by enslaved labor, initially in the West Indies and later in the American South. In effect, Moses Brown, in seeking to disentangle Rhode Islanders from one aspect of slavery, ensured their more thorough entanglement in another. John Brown, who had long felt the sting of his brother’s disapproval, appreciated the irony. “I hope the abolition society will promote our own manufactories; especially the cotton manufactory, for which great experience has accrued and is accruing,” he wrote during his 1789 newspaper war with the Providence Abolition Society. “This is most certainly a laudable undertaking, and ought to be encouraged by all; but pause a moment — will it do to import the cotton? It is all raised from the labour of our own blood; the slaves do the work. I can recollect no one place at present from whence the cotton can come, but from the labour of the slaves.”60

Moses never responded to John’s taunt, which seems, in retrospect, to highlight an obvious contradiction. Probably the best that can be said is that he believed, as did most early abolitionists, that slavery was “consequent” upon the trade — that is, that the institution depended on the continued importation of Africans and would naturally wither away once the trade had been stemmed. That belief may have had some validity for the sugar colonies of the Caribbean, where massive mortality required the constant infusion of fresh labor, but it was not true in the United States. With the invention of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793, American slavery gained a spectacular new lease on life. Over the next generation, cotton cultivation spread across the lower Mississippi Valley and as far west as Texas, sustained by an interstate slave trade that could be as inhumane and disruptive of family bonds as the transatlantic trade had been. By the 1850s, cotton was the lifeblood of the American economy, supplying more than sixty percent of the nation’s exports and the lion’s share of federal government revenues. The total market value of the slaves who produced that cotton exceeded the value of all American banks, railroads, and factories combined.61

The rise of the Cotton Kingdom had a dramatic effect on the New England economy. Nearly three hundred textile firms opened in Rhode Island in the years between 1790 and 1860, ranging from small, short-lived “manufactories” to massive, state-of-the-art mills, with thousands of spindles. Hundreds more mills were built in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut. A host of ancillary enterprises grew up in the industry’s wake, including machine shops and railroads, banks and insurance companies. Just as the wealth of eighteenth-century New England had flowed from slave-produced sugar, so did the region’s vastly enlarged wealth in the nineteenth century flow from slave-produced cotton.

Rhode Island and the “Negro Cloth” Industry

Nowhere was New England’s continuing economic dependence on slavery more dramatic than in Rhode Island, which came to rely on the plantation South not only as a source of raw materials but also as a primary market for its goods. Facing mounting competition from larger, more modern mills in Massachusetts, Rhode Island textile manufacturers carved out a niche in the production of “Negro cloth,” the cheap cloth sold to southern planters as clothing for slaves. A coarse cotton-wool blend, “Negro cloth” was designed to degrade its wearers — to create (in the words of a South Carolina grand jury) a visible “distinction … between the whites and the negroes, calculated to make the latter feel the superiority of the former.” But the market was huge, as were the potential profits, and Rhode Islanders seized the opportunity.62

Colorful painting of ornately dressed men indulging in food and drink provided by naked black servants.

In 1758, a group of Rhode Island ship captains found themselves together in the Dutch Caribbean colony of Surinam and decided to commemorate the occasion by commissioning a portrait. The result was John Greenwood’s Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, c. 1752–1758, which depicts the men disporting themselves in a tavern amidst ill-clothed African slaves. Of the ten men in the painting who have been identified, six were future trustees of the College of Rhode Island — what is today Brown University. Two became governors of Rhode Island.

Saint Louis Art Museum.

The role of northern factories in clothing southern slaves was noted by observers at the time. “[A]s to the clothing of the slaves on the plantations,” wrote Frederick Law Olmsted in his famous 1853 travel narrative of the South, “they are said to be furnished by their owners or masters, every year, each with a coat and trousers, of a coarse woolen or woolen and cotton stuff (mostly made, especially for this purpose, in Providence, R.I.).” Had Olmsted probed further, he might have noted that Rhode Island manufacturers had also cornered the market for slave blankets, bagging (the sacks used for harvesting cotton), and brogans, the cheap, ill-fitting shoes produced for southern slaves. He might also have noted that the owners of the firms dominating the southern trade included not only old slave-trading families but also several families who had been leading members of the Providence Abolition Society a generation before. Peace Dale Manufacturing Company, for example, the firm that pioneered the Negro cloth trade, was owned by the Hazards, a Quaker family long noted for its opposition to slavery. Like many of Rhode Island’s textile manufacturers, the Hazards were major donors to Brown University.63

“I hope the abolition society will promote our own manufactories; especially the cotton manufactory, for which great experience has accrued and is accruing,” John Brown wrote mockingly. “This is most certainly a laudable undertaking, and ought to be encouraged by all; but pause a moment — will it do to import the cotton? It is all raised from the labour of our own blood; the slaves do the work. I can recollect no one place at present from whence the cotton can come, but from the labour of the slaves.”

Abolitionism and Anti-Abolitionism

Understanding the links between southern slavery and northern manufacturing helps to explain Rhode Islanders’ response to the establishment of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison, the society was far more radical than earlier abolitionist movements, insisting not only on the complete abolition of slavery but also on African Americans’ right to full American citizenship. The society first came to national prominence in 1835, when it distributed more than a million anti-slavery appeals through the U.S. postal system. The campaign provoked a furious backlash, with northerners and southerners alike denouncing the abolitionists as irresponsible fanatics bent on racial amalgamation. While Congress responded with a law prohibiting the circulation of abolitionist literature through the mails, mobs burned anti-slavery publications and assaulted abolitionist speakers. One historian has counted more than two hundred anti-abolition mobs in the antebellum period, with 1835 marking the peak of activity.64

The rise of the American Anti-Slavery Society provoked intense opposition among business leaders in Rhode Island, who saw the society as a threat not only to social order but also to their livelihoods, which revolved around slave-produced cotton. The appearance of an agent of the society in the state in 1835 prompted a series of public meetings, where state leaders left little doubt about where they stood on the matter of racial equality. Black people were “a race whom nature herself has distinguished by indelible marks, and whom the most zealous asserters of equality admit to be — if not a distinct species — at least a variety of the human species,” participants at an anti-abolition meeting in Newport declared. “Great, therefore, as was the original error of introducing slaves into the country, it would be a far greater error and evil ever to resort to the experiment of converting them into freemen. . . . ”65

A short time later, local newspapers published the resolutions adopted at the inaugural meeting of the newly created Providence Anti-Abolition Society. “We, the People of Providence,” the resolutions began, in an obvious evocation of the American Constitution, before proceeding to demand federal suppression of the abolitionist movement on the grounds that it threatened “sacred rights of property” as well as “the existing relations of friendship and of business between different sections of our country.” The officers of the society included many of Rhode Island’s premier political and business leaders, several of whom were members of the Brown Corporation. The resolutions were drafted by a committee chaired by William G. Goddard, a Brown professor of moral philosophy and later a member of both the Board of Trustees and the Board of Fellows. Among the vice presidents of the Providence Anti-Abolition Society was Nicholas Brown Jr., the University’s namesake and a member, forty years before, of the Providence Abolition Society.66

All these events were watched with interest by Nicholas’ uncle, Moses. Ninety-seven years old, Moses had outlived his brothers, his son, and most of his nieces and nephews. In 1835, as the controversy over abolition raged, he summoned his attorney and added a codicil to his will, leaving $500 to the local branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society, “to publish such pamphlets as the society might judge useful for abolishing slavery.” He died the following year.67

Slavery and Abolition on College Campuses

Like the battle over the slave trade in the eighteenth century — and like the slavery reparations controversy of our own time — the abolition debate spilled onto college campuses, compelling institutions to reflect on the nature of slavery and, more broadly, on the responsibility of universities when faced with issues arousing great public passion. Different schools responded in different ways. A few cast their lot with the anti-slavery movement, providing forums for abolitionist speakers and admitting Black students. African Americans graduated from Amherst and Bowdoin as early as 1826. Wesleyan enrolled a Black student in the early 1830s, but it appears that fellow students hounded him from the school. Oberlin College went furthest, admitting both Black men and Black women on a regular basis beginning in 1835. Of the roughly four hundred African American students to earn degrees at white colleges in the nineteenth century, nearly a third of them studied at Oberlin. During the antebellum years, the campus also served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad.68

Dubbing themselves the Providence Anti-Abolition Society, the gentlemen demanded federal suppression of the abolitionist movement on the grounds that it threatened “sacred rights of property” as well as “the existing relations of friendship and of business between different sections of our country.” Among the vice presidents of the Anti-Abolition Society was Nicholas Brown Jr., the University’s namesake and a member, forty years before, of the Providence Abolition Society.

Most colleges took a more conservative approach. Harvard and Yale, institutions with substantial numbers of southern students and large contingents of textile manufacturers among their trustees and donors, did not admit African American students into their undergraduate colleges until the 1870s. (Princeton, the most southern of northern universities, did not admit Black students until World War II.) At Harvard, the abolition question was considered so inflammatory that President Josiah Quincy sought to prevent students and faculty from even discussing it. At least one faculty member was dismissed for expressing anti-slavery sentiments, and others received formal warnings. “I … distinctly stated to you that … I held it an incumbent duty of every officer of the Institution to abstain from any act tending to bring within its walls discussions upon questions on which the passions and interests of the community are divided, and warmly engaged,” Quincy reminded one junior instructor. Quincy’s concerns were seemingly borne out in the early 1850s, when a trio of African American students were briefly admitted to Harvard’s medical program. The experiment appears to have been launched by the local chapter of the American Colonization Society, which planned to transport the three men to Africa after they had completed their studies, but it was cut short after protests from other students, who complained that “the admission of blacks to the medical Lectures” undermined the “reputation” of Harvard and lessened “the value of a degree from it.”69

Slavery as a Problem of Moral Philosophy: The Presidency of Francis Wayland

Brown charted its own idiosyncratic course. Like most of its peer institutions, Brown did not admit Black students during the antebellum years — the first African Americans enrolled only in the 1870s — and it certainly did not render any formal support to the abolitionist movement. But the College also made no effort to suppress discussion of the issue. On the contrary, students were actively encouraged to grapple with the moral and political issues raised by the controversy. The architect of this unusual policy was Rev. Francis Wayland, who served as Brown’s president from 1827 to 1855. America’s premier moral philosopher — his textbook, The Elements of Moral Science, sold more than two-hundred thousand copies in the nineteenth century — Wayland was a staunch opponent of slavery, which he regarded as both an offense against God and a patent violation of the nation’s founding principles. But he was also extremely hostile to the new abolitionists, whom he saw as irresponsible agitators. “Slavery in this country will yet cease, for it is wrong,” he wrote a correspondent in 1837. “But it will never be made to cease by the present efforts. They have on them, in my opinion, every mask of failure, for they are not made in the fear of God or with love to man. They may destroy the union, plunge this country into a civil war, break us up into a half dozen different confederacies, but abolish slavery as they are now attempting to do it — they never will. You may note my words, they never will.”70

Wayland had pragmatic reasons for seeking a middle ground in the escalating conflict over slavery and abolition. Not only was he the president of a university in a state dominated by textile interests, but he was also president of the national convention of the Baptist Church, which was bitterly divided on the slavery question. (The church finally split into southern and northern wings in 1845.) Yet his approach also reflected his philosophical precepts. For Wayland, moral progress came not through conflict and name-calling, but through a gradual process of enlightenment, nurtured by respectful, reasoned dialogue. He sought to model this approach in both his teaching and his writing, most notably in Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution, a published debate with a pro-slavery clergyman from South Carolina. Slaveholders, Wayland believed, could be brought to see the evil of slavery, but not in the overheated atmosphere created by abolitionism. He elaborated this position in The Limitations of Human Responsibility, published in 1838. In the book, Wayland argued that people had a right, indeed an obligation, to try to persuade slaveholders of the error of their ways, but beyond that their rights and obligations did not go. Responsibility for acting or not acting on the advice lay with each individual slaveholder. “I have no right, for the sake of carrying a measure, or stirring up excitement, or swaying the popular opinion, to urge, as a matter of universal obligation, what God has left as a matter to be decided by every man’s conscience,” he wrote. The problem, of course, was that very few southern slaveholders were open to persuasion, a fact that even Wayland eventually came to acknowledge. The deeper problem, from a philosophical point of view, lay in the portrayal of moral responsibility as a transaction solely between white men. There was little suggestion in Wayland’s argument that people might also bear responsibilities toward those who were unjustly enslaved.71

Brown Students Debate Abolition

Whatever the limitations of Wayland’s approach, it created wide latitude for Brown students to discuss the issues swirling about them. And discuss them they did, not only in classrooms but also in commencement orations, Phi Beta Kappa lectures, and formal debates staged by a half dozen campus societies. Were Black and white people endowed with equal capacities to reason? Would it be politic for America to emancipate its slaves? Was the “existence of slavery in a nation prejudicial to its morals?” Did southern planters have a right, “under the present circumstances,” to hold slaves? Could slavery be justified in terms of scripture or “the Principles of Political Economy”? Wayland himself dedicated several weeks of his senior seminar to the problems of slavery and abolition. “He permitted the largest liberty of questioning and discussion,” one of his students later recalled, insisting only “that the student should state his point with precision.”72

Handwritten inventory of stores loaded onto the Sally

The inventory of stores loaded onto the slave ship Sally, September, 1764, includes implements needed to control the anticipated cargo, including seven swivel guns, various small arms, gunpowder, chains, and “40 hand Cuffs & 40 Shackels.”

The Brown Family Business Records collection at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Determining the exact proportion of Brown students who supported or opposed slavery in the antebellum years is not possible. Clearly many students, southerners and northerners alike, were pro-slavery, or at least anti-abolition. Most formal debates for which a result is recorded seem to have been resolved against abolition. When abolitionist Wendell Phillips came to speak at a Providence church in 1845, he was heckled and abused by a large contingent of Brown students. (Phillips, no stranger to heckling, reportedly told the students that “they might be silly as geese or venomous as serpents, he would speak if they stayed until midnight.” They did, and he did.) Other students, however, joined the ranks of the abolitionist movement. The founding members of the Providence branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society included eleven Brown students. At least one Brown graduate, named Dresser, became an agent for the society. He was later arrested in Nashville and publicly whipped for distributing abolitionist literature.73

In the end, slavery was abolished in the United States not by reasoned debate or by the progress of moral enlightenment but by force of arms. At least twenty-one Brown University students died in the service of the Union Army. A plaque in Manning Chapel, on the University’s main green, honors their sacrifice. At least thirteen Brown students died in the uniform of the Confederacy. Their service, like so much else about the University’s tangled relationship with slavery, would soon be forgotten.74