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The battle over slavery

Sons of Providence reveals that the American Civil War could have been altogether avoided.

india Updated: May 09, 2006 15:26 IST

By M.L. Johnson

Moses Brown could taste victory. The prominent Quaker merchant spent years working to end the slave trade, and in February 1784, he believed Rhode Island lawmakers were finally going to ban the practice.

Then Moses' older brother, John, rose to lead the opposition. He outlined on a chalkboard the slave trade's economic importance. The General Assembly voted down the ban 2-to-1.

The United States might have avoided civil war decades later if Moses, the abolitionist, had prevailed in the battle between brothers. Instead, Rhode Island continued to dominate the North American slave trade, sending out hundreds of ships even after the state enacted a ban three years later.

"It's kind of tantalizing to see how close we came to ending slavery in the beginning," said Charles Rappleye, author of a new book on the brothers who helped found Brown University. Sons of Providence, due for release May 16, comes as the Ivy League school is preparing a report on its ties to the slave trade. Rappleye, a journalist who lives in Los Angeles, starts a month-long book tour Thursday with an appearance at the Statehouse to kick off "Gaspee Days", the state's celebration of the American Revolution. The book has an initial print run from publisher Simon & Schuster of 20,000 copies.

 Sons of Providence

Rappleye became intrigued by the Browns and the Rhode Island slave trade while visiting his brother, Bill, a local TV reporter. The former L.A. Weekly editor spent three years on his second book, combing through letters, family journals, business records and other documents kept by a Brown relative, Brown University and the Rhode Island Historical Society. The result is a readable, detailed account of the Revolutionary era in which Rappleye is able to reconstruct conversations and time events down to the hour. Morgan Grefe, director of the Rhode Island Historical Society's Goff Center for Education and Public Programming, said Rappleye's work is notable because previous books on the Browns focussed on their business acumen.

"It's putting a human face onto what many historians are talking about now, and that's that very interesting juxtaposition of fighting for liberty and the American Revolution and slavery," Grefe said.

The Brown brothers were captivating. Both belonged to the Sons of Liberty, a semi-formal group of revolutionaries, but Moses was a Quaker and pacifist. John helped spark the American Revolution by staging a midnight raid in which he burned the Gaspee, a stranded British naval vessel.

They partnered with two other brothers in a 1764 slaving expedition in which more than half of their 196 slaves died between Guinea and the West Indies. Moses was appalled by the death toll and saw his first wife's death in 1773 as a punishment from God. He joined the Quakers, freed his slaves and became an abolitionist. John continued slaving even after it became illegal. "Here's Moses saying, 'You've got to get out of the slave trade,' and John saying, 'I would, but I need the money,"' Rappleye said.

 Charles Rappleye

The brothers' differences are striking because they worked so closely together. With their brothers Nicholas and Joseph, they invested in manufacturing, shipping, real estate and currency speculation. John and Moses remained bound by family and friends in the tight-knit Providence community even as they argued about war and slavery. Moses' cottonworks bought cotton from John, and they founded one of the nation's first banks in 1791.

Rappleye speculated that John's obstinance helped fuel Moses' abolitionist fervour.

"As much as they went out into the world, and dealt with all kinds of people, the people that really mattered to them were each other," he said.

John stunned Moses with his surprise attack on the slave trade ban in the General Assembly in 1784. But Moses paid him back 13 years later. His group of abolitionists had John prosecuted under federal law for illegal slave trading. After finding him guilty, the government seized and auctioned his ship.

A second suit against John was heard in the shipping capital of Newport. A jury ruled in John's favour, and the number of slaving expeditions leaving from Rhode Island tripled within a year. The abolition movement crumbled, and Moses found himself mostly alone in his later years. John went on to serve a term in Congress before his death in 1803.

The brothers' story shows that being American "means making difficult choices, wrestling with issues," Rappleye said.