Born in 1797, the youngest of the three surviving children of Nicholas Brown II and Ann Carter, daughter of John Carter, the noted Providence printer, John Carter Brown was raised in a family tradition of public leadership and philanthropy. While at Brown University, he joined an undergraduate society to provide needy students with free books.
Upon graduation in 1816, John Carter Brown joined the family firm, Brown & Ives. Though lacking his forefathers’ enthusiasm for business or politics, he cheerfully undertook his commercial responsibilities, especially after his older brother Nicholas III defiantly left the family firm to settle in New York. But he never let duty overshadow his interest in history, art and literature. Thus, he managed to convert his first business trip to Europe in 1822 into a two year “grand tour.” His commencement address had been on “The Revolution of Empires;” now his travels to Europe and the American West demonstrated that the epic theme of modern history was the migration of peoples and their adaptation to new settings.
One of his mentors was his uncle, Benjamin Carter, a physician who learned Chinese while working for Brown & Ives in Canton and spent 15 years in Europe. Uncle Benjamin introduced his nephews to “The Great Subject,” how the New and Old Worlds influenced each other ” a subject known as Americana.
Since 1749, John Carter Brown’s forefathers had purchased books and founded libraries such as the Providence Library in 1753 and the Providence Atheneum in 1836. Thus it was natural for Nicholas and John Carter to start collecting Americana.
John Carter Brown’s ability to buy rare books increased substantially in 1841 when he inherited his father’s entire share of Brown & Ives. By 1846, he had bought his brother’s books and much of a library accumulated by Henri Ternaux, a Frenchman who was among the first collectors in this field. The brash, energetic book dealer Henry Stevens stationed himself in London to scout for him. By the 1860s, he needed a modern, fireproof addition to his house and hired a full time librarian, Rhode Island State Secretary John Russell Bartlett who began printing catalogues of the collection. At his death in 1874, John Carter Brown has amassed 7,500 rare books.
John Carter Brown was not only extremely generous in lending his books but continued making donations to Brown University, Butler Hospital and the Rhode Island Hospital when it opened in 1867. He oversaw a broadening of the University curriculum and gave a new building for its library. A strong opponent of slavery, he played a prominent role in the Free Soil Movement in the 1840s and 50s, becoming President of the Emigrant Aid Society the year Congress passed the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened all US territories to slavery.
At 62, John Carter Brown married the vivacious Sophia Augusta Browne, a direct descendant of Roger Williams, who shared his zeal for collecting. She ensured that their three children would continue this passion. At the untimely death in 1900 of the eldest, John Nicholas Brown, the collection was deeded to Brown University along with an endowment and a building.
– Sylvia Brown