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Sons of Providence

The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution

About The Book

In 1774, as the new world simmered with tensions that would lead to the violent birth of a new nation, two Rhode Island brothers were heading toward their own war over the issue that haunts America to this day: slavery.

Set against a colonial backdrop teeming with radicals and reactionaries, visionaries, spies, and salty sea captains, Sons of Providence is the biography of John and Moses Brown, two classic American archetypes bound by blood yet divided by the specter of more than half a million Africans enslaved throughout the colonies. John is a profit-driven robber baron running slave galleys from his wharf on the Providence waterfront; his younger brother Moses is an idealist, a conscientious Quaker hungry for social reform who -- with blood on his own hands -- strikes out against the hypocrisy of slavery in a land of liberty.

Their story spans a century, from John's birth in 1736, through the Revolution, to Moses' death in 1836. The brothers were partners in business and politics and in founding the university that bears their name. They joined in the struggle against England, attending secret sessions of the Sons of Liberty and, in John's case, leading a midnight pirate raid against a British revenue cutter. But for the Browns as for the nation, the institution of slavery was the one question that admitted no middle ground. Moses became an early abolitionist while John defended the slave trade and broke the laws written to stop it. The brothers' dispute takes the reader from the sweltering decks of the slave ships to the taverns and town halls of the colonies and shows just how close America came to ending slavery eighty years before the conflagration of civil war.

This dual biography is drawn from voluminous family papers and other primary sources and is a dramatic story of an epic struggle for primacy between two very different brothers. It also provides a fresh and panoramic view of the founding era. Samuel Adams and Nathanael Greene take turns here, as do Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island's great revolutionary leader and theorist, and his brother Esek, first commodore of the United States Navy. We meet the Philadelphia abolitionists Anthony Benezet and James Pemberton, and Providence printer John Carter, one of the pioneers of the American press. For all the chronicles of America's primary patriarch, none documents, as this book does, George Washington's sole public performance in opposition to the slave trade.

Charles Rappleye brings the skills of an investigative journalist to mine this time and place for vivid detail and introduce the reader to fascinating new characters from the members of our founding generation. Raised in a culture of freedom and self-expression, Moses and John devoted their lives to the pursuit of their own visions of individual liberty. In so doing, each emerges as an American archetype -- Moses as the social reformer, driven by conscience and dedicated to an enlightened sense of justice; John as the unfettered capitalist, defiant of any effort to constrain his will. The story of their collaboration and their conflict has a startlingly contemporary feel. And like any good yarn, the story of the Browns tells us something about ourselves.

About The Author

Photograph by Eric Minh Swenson

Charles Rappleye is an award-winning investigative journalist and editor. He has written extensively on media, law enforcement, and organized crime. The author of Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution; Robert Morris: Financier of the American Revolution; and Herbert Hoover in the White House: The Ordeal of the Presidency, he lives in Los Angeles.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 31, 2006)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743289146

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Raves and Reviews

"A fresh and interesting work.... That the American antislavery movement began so early is a point often lost in the popular mind, and Rappleye revives these early struggles well." -- Jon Meacham, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Reading Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence, a biography of Moses and John Brown, gave me the same kind of jolt I felt when I learned that twelve of America's presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners. Rappleye's book provides vivid testimony to the painful fact that the Browns and the tiny state they helped form were indeed all too much like America, fractured between the ideal of liberty and the reality of chattel slavery.... Rappleye skillfully details the complex relationship between these brothers, whose differences over slavery tested but never destroyed their friendship." -- David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review

"Rappleye is a diligent researcher...and a fair-minded, unjudgmental chronicler of the Browns' complicated story.... Sons of Providence is more than the story of two privileged and disputatious men, and it should be read with an eye to its larger implications." -- Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

"Eloquent and riveting.... Rappleye narrates with verve and insight, creating a wonderfully engaging glimpse into a key epoch in Rhode Island -- and American -- history." -- Edward J. Renehan, Jr., The Providence Journal

"Through this profoundly moving story of two brothers -- one a slave trader, the other an abolitionist -- Rappleye brings to vivid life the history of a formative period in our nation's life. It is a terrific story and a splendid work of history." -- Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

"Sons of Providence is a landmark book. One learns things about the American Revolution and the early Republic that amaze." -- Thomas Fleming, author of Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge

"In his inspired choice of the Brown Brothers, Charles Rappleye makes human the division between slave owners and abolitionists that haunted the American Revolution and left consequences that plague us still. Sons of Providence is an epic story of greed, rebellion, and moral courage." -- A. J. Langguth, author of Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution

"Charles Rappleye has unearthed the fascinating story of two founding brothers on opposite sides of America's bitter battle over slavery and the meaning of a nation conceived in liberty. This powerfully told narrative sheds new light on the Revolutionary era and one man's impassioned struggle to end slavery before it was too late." -- Henry Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves,and the Creation of America

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Brown University (2012/2013)

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