Moses Brown (1738-1836), a prominent Providence merchant, reformer, and philanthropist, was one of the five Brown brothers, a group that included John, Joseph, Nicholas, and James, the eldest, a twenty-six-year-old ship captain when he died at sea in 1751. They were the children of Captain James Brown and Hope Power, the great-granddaughter of Nicholas Power, an immigrant from Ireland.
Only a year old when his father died, Moses received a few years of formal schooling before being adopted and apprenticed to his wealthy uncle Obadiah to learn the intricacies of eighteenth-century trade and commerce. Moses remained an influential businessman well into the nineteenth century.
In 1764, Moses Brown married his cousin Anna, the daughter of his uncle Obadiah. The couple had three children, Sarah, Obadiah, and a daughter who died shortly after birth. Anna’s death in 1773 profoundly impacted Moses and influenced his later humanitarian pursuits.
Moses served as a deputy in the General Assembly from 1764 until 1771 and was an influential political ally of Governor Stephen Hopkins. During this period, he also assisted his brother Joseph in several scientific endeavors, worked to relocate Rhode Island College (established 1764) from Warren to Providence, and served as supervisor of the pest house in Providence, where he advocated inoculation to prevent communicable diseases.
In 1774, after the death of his first wife, Moses converted from his Baptist beliefs to the Quaker religion, a move that greatly influenced his life and career. He vigorously espoused the reform goals of the Quakers, especially abolitionism and opposition to the foreign slave trade. His views on these subjects placed him at odds with his more wealthy and equally influential brother, John. Moses strongly supported the Revolutionary effort, and despite the Constitution’s compromise with slavery, he became a leading Federalist.
Moses freed his slaves on terms that were advantageous to them; he advocated Rhode Island’s 1774 ban on further importation of slaves; he fought for the passage of the state’s gradual manumission act of 1784; and he helped to secure the passage of a statute in 1787 forbidding anyone to outfit slaving voyages in Rhode Island’s ports. By 1789, he had reached the conclusion that the Constitution should be ratified because of the economic stability it would bring and because it at least allowed for banning the slave trade after January 1, 1808.
In 1790, Moses Brown was a silent partner in a textile venture with William Almy and Smith Brown that subsidized the plan of English immigrant Samuel Slater to build the first water-powered Arkwright spinning mill in the United States, an event lavishly hailed by some as the beginning of America’s Industrial Revolution. Slater’s arrival was induced by a December 12, 1789, letter to him from Moses urging him to “come and work our machines, and have the credit as well as the advantage of perfecting the first water mill in America.” Via the firm of Brown and Almy, Moses Brown and his associates provided much of the capital that financed the rapid construction of additional textile mills throughout southern New England.
During his final decades, Moses became widely respected for his philanthropy and his educational endeavors. He was determined to provide sectarian schooling for Quakers, and despite early failures, he was instrumental in establishing a Friends’ school in Providence by 1819. This now venerable educational institution came to bear his name in 1904. Among his many other civic projects were the Rhode Island Bible Society, the Rhode Island Peace Society, and the Providence Athenaeum.
In 1779, Moses had married Mary Olney, who died in 1798. A year later, he took a third wife, Phoebe Lockwood, who died in 1808. His only son, Obadiah, named for his grandfather, became a prominent merchant and businessman who partnered with Moses in several successful ventures, including the firm of Brown and Almy. When Obadiah died in 1822, he left a gift of $100,000 to the Friends’ school founded by his father; it was the largest single bequest made to any American institution of learning up to that time.
Born in the reign of George II, Moses Brown lived to receive a visit from President Andrew Jackson and Vice President Martin Van Buren before he died in Providence on September 6, 1836, a week before his ninety-eighth birthday.
Moses Brown was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional information:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.