Charles Rappleye, The Sons of Providence, Slavery, and American History

In his book titled Sons of Providence, author Charles Rappleye tells the story of two brothers, John and Moses Brown, who figure prominently in early Rhode Island history. Both men were involved in many aspects of the early commercial and economic development of Rhode Island, but there was a sharp contrast between the two. John Brown engaged in and defended the slave trade throughout his life, while Moses Brown was a leader in the early abolitionist movement.
Mr. Rappleye is interesting both to read and to listen to (Marc and I recently attended a lecture he presented on his book sponsored by the Providence chapter of the NAACP and the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society) because of his impressive command of the different levels of the story he is telling. His work is fully aware that the story of the Brown brothers is important because it is a part of the long shadow that slavery casts on American history. But Rappleye is equally clear that John and Moses Brown are not mere prisoners of the events of their time; the individual decisions they make for personal, human reasons shape and drive the events of the period — events that include the American revolution and the formation of the American form of government.
Here are just a few of the interesting points that Mr. Rappleye presents…

  • Not only was the slave trade very important to the economy of colonial Rhode Island, but there was also substantial slaveholding here. At one point in the mid-1700s, about 15% of Newport’s population was comprised of slaves.
  • Moses Brown took up the abolitionist cause after the death of his wife Anna, believing that God had taken her as punishment for his sins, and that he had to work to eradicate slavery as his atonement.
  • Moses Brown wrote the first Federal law banning slave trading. The first person convicted under the law was his brother John.
  • John Brown was the original Robert Healey (not for reasons related to the slave trade) — he was elected to Congress even though he didn’t really believe in the Federal government. While in Congress, John bucked the common practice of the time of ignoring slavery in civic dicussions and offered the first public, affirmative defense of the slave trade.

After his presentation, Anchor Rising had the chance to ask a few questions to Charles Rappleye…
Anchor Rising: Can you tell us some more about how the story of Moses Brown and abolitionism combines two distinct strands; on the one hand, you have the philosophy of liberty growing out of the rationalistic enlightenment; on the other, you have Moses Brown converting to Quakerism and talking up abolition after a passionate religious experience following the death of his wife…
Charles Rappleye: The first three generations of Moses Brown’s five generations in Rhode Island were all Baptist preachers. His father James was a merchant and not a preacher. For Moses to convert from the Baptist faith was a big break with his family. As I describe in the book, as I see it in my mind, he was listening to his religious side, his religious core, whereas John and the other members of the family were kind of just going along.
I do talk, for more than my editor wanted me to, about how the Quakers were alone in talking about slavery and becoming abolitionists long before anybody else. Their tradition of abolitionism was about 50 years old. It was really reaching a crescendo just as this rhetoric of liberty and freedom started breaking out. Abolitionism went from a heretical fringe idea to the popular idea of the day, a popular movement that had the support of most people, certainly in the North, in a period of about three years, which is remarkable.
It was the Quaker influence connected with the revolution rhetoric, even though the Quakers were against the revolution because they were pacifists. But that idea of anti-slavery really caught on. Before I wrote the book, I hadn’t known that there was an early phase to the abolition movement, I thought it was more the William Lloyd Garrison kinds of activities going on in the 1820s, 30s and 40s.
It is kind of tragic. There was this moment where abolitionism was popular and slavery unpopular right around the time of the writing of the Constitution, but it was the economic interests, and not the popular sentiment, that prevailed at the conference that wrote that document.
AR: At that time, how radical was an idea like “everyone is equal”?
CR: That was an idea that was on the fringes, although some colonies were fairly democratic. Rhode Island was the most democratic. Some people considered it to be their big flaw. There was one guy who called it a “downright democracy”. He was one of the members of the commission that was assembled to hear the evidence of the burining of the Gaspee. In 1772, they’re still saying “it’s a downright democracy around here”.
Democracy was coming into vogue, but was certainly not universally accepted like it is now.
AR: From your work, do you get a sense of whether the appeal of abolitionism was something that was universal, or something unique to the American experience, or something that grew out of European ideas?
CR: Abolitionism was an American product. At the same time, America, as time went on, became the largest slaveholding enterprise in the world. Abolitionism really did start here and caught on here. The Quakers were pushing it in England it at the same time as the ideas of the enlightenment were catching on there as well.
Britain passed their abolitionist legislation after the stuff that was written by Moses Brown and then they became the enforcers of the ban on the Slave trade. That was actually an issue in the War of 1812. The British insisted on the right to search on the high seas because they wanted to search cargoes of the American ships coming out from Africa to search for slaves. The Americans were saying you have no right to search us and no, we’re not in violation, whether they had slaves on them or not.
But the prohibition on Slave trading that Moses Brown wrote that passed the legislature in 1787 was the first prohibition on Slave trading anywhere in the world.


Marc gives his thoughts on Sons of Providence and Charles Rappleye’s discussion of it over at Spinning Clio.

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