Friday, May 19, 2006

Sons of Providence, American Archetypes

I previously noted that Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence : The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, about the roles played by John and Moses Brown during the Founding period, had been well received here in Rhode Island. Since then, the book has also received a positive review in the N.Y. Times.

Last night Rappleye wrapped up his month-long book tour at a book signing hosted by The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and the local NAACP chapter (ed-page not loading, but here's a cached version) at Providence's historic Benificent Church. Both I and my colleague Andrew Morse (we both contribute to another blog) were invited to attend by local political reporter (and Charles' brother) Bill Rappleye.

To keep the summary brief, Rappleye has concluded that Rhode Island and New England in general had a much larger part to play in the slave trade than most people realize. In the Brown brothers, Rappleye found good examples of two of the divergent notions of freedom and democracy that were developing in our nascent nation. John Brown embodied the free-market, capitalist archetype who privileges property rights and his right to make money. Moses Brown-- especially after the death of his wife and subsequent conversion to Quakerism-- embodied a more egalitarian world view with an emphasis on devotion to his fellow man (though his fortune helped him promote this view).

Predictably--given the subject matter and the audience--the post-presentation Q&A was much broader than just a discussion on the Brown brothers and their relationship.

There was some discussion over the reticence of various members of the Brown family to acknowledge their role in the slave trade. Rappleye disclosed that, while some members were reluctant, others were very helpful to him in his research. Allusion was made to Brown University's investigation (by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice) into the role that the slave trade played in its founding. Also mentioned was the reluctance of the John Brown House to acknowledge that its namesake had been a slaveholder at all. Rappleye pointed out that while the Brown family and Brown University may have some "blood money" on their hands, the fact of the matter was that it was also the Brown family who produced one of the first effective abolitionist leaders in the person of Moses Brown.

Andrew and I had a chance to talk to Rappleye after the formal discussion and he explained how John and Moses are sort of the archetypes of the prevalent American ideologies of freedom and liberty even to this day. He also said that much of the debate between the brothers could be chalked up to good old fashioned sibling rivalry. Finally, he also provided a useful analogy: that slavery was the engine of the global economy at that time, much as oil is today.

I hope to finish reading the book soon and expect to offer more thoughts at some point. In the meantime, Andrew has up his review over at Anchor Rising.

Here are some other stories related to both Rappleye's book and the controversy surrounding Brown University. First, from the Brown [University] Daily Herald is an account of book signing at Brown University, a report on Brown's "nuanced" past, a story about waiting for the report of the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice and a story about a Brown family member who is writing her own version of the family history. Additionally, the Providence Journal had a series on the Rhode Island slave trade, with The Unrighteous Traffick- Part 5, "Brown vs. Brown: Brothers Go Head to Head" being the most relevant to this topic. Finally, The Unrighteous Traffick- Part 6, "Living Off the Trade: Bristol and the DeWolfs" is about another Rhode Island family that was heavily involved in the slave trade.

No comments: