Home New England Historic Houses The John Brown House: Keeping Up With the Joneses

The John Brown House: Keeping Up With the Joneses

But doing it on the backs of the enslaved

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You could say the elegant John Brown House in Providence was built on the backs of enslaved Africans. But the story of John Brown’s involvement in the slave trade is a little more complicated than you might think.

Brown invested in a privateer ship, the Marlborough, that disrupted the British slave trade in a big way during the American Revolution. He did it out of patriotic, rather than altruistic motives. Brown’s privateersmen destroyed one of the top British slave trading posts in Africa. They also captured several armed British slave ships and sent them to North America.

Then they sold the human cargo into slavery. But in the process of capturing British slave ships off the West African coast, they discouraged British investment in slaving. The number of enslaved Africans shipped across the Atlantic fell probably by 60,000 or more during the early American Revolution, according to historian Christian McBurney.

So it is true that the John Brown House was, in part, built on the backs of enslaved Africans.

John Brown

John Brown was born into one of Rhode Island’s leading families in 1736. His ancestor, the Rev. Chad Brown, had followed Roger Williams to Providence. The Brown family prospered. John’s father and uncle traded in cocoa, rum, molasses and human beings.

The only known image of John Brown, a miniature by George Malbone

As a young man, he and his three brothers — Nicholas, Joseph and Moses — ran several kinds of business. They had sugar plantations in the Caribbean, and they engaged in merchant shipping, which included slaving and the China trade.

In 1764, they invested in a slaving voyage by the Sally. Plagued by delays, violent insurrection and an outbreak of dysentery, it ended in disaster. The Sally misadventure turned Moses Brown against slavery. He converted to Quakerism, founded an abolitionist society and drafted laws banning slavery. John, however, continued to bankroll slave expeditions.

John Brown ardently supported the cause of  independence for Americans, white ones, at least. In 1772, he instigated the Gaspee Affair, burning a British revenue cutter that had zealously enforced customs laws.

During the American Revolution, the minuscule Continental Navy could do little against the mighty Royal Navy. So the Continental Congress decided to allow privateering —  legal piracy against the enemy. It proved an effective weapon against British sea power and resulted in the capture of desperately needed gunpowder, weapons and food. Privateering also made John Brown rich.

The John Brown House

After the war, John Brown decided to build a trophy house high on College Hill. He sent his son and son-in-law on a trip to measure the dimensions of mansions, their porticoes and their staircases, along the Eastern Seaboard. He wanted to build one just as impressive.

Builders finished the 12-room Georgian house in 1788. The John Brown House exceeded the grandeur of his wealthy contemporaries’ homes, according to John Quincy Adams. He called it “the most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent.”

Brown hired craftsmen to carve the mahogany woodwork. He filled the house with fine furniture from Providence’s leading cabinetmakers. Paintings, fine china, silver and wallpaper finished the look.

In 1901, local industrialist Marsden J. Perry bought the John Brown House. He renovated it with modern bathrooms and central heating. John Nicholas Brown then bought the house in 1936, and six years later the Brown family donated it to the Rhode Island Historical Society. The historical society restored it to its original Georgian decor.

The Neighborhood

John Brown played a big role in founding Brown University, then known as the College. His house borders the campus. Brown has several buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: University Hall, the oldest building on campus, and the elaborate Thomas F. Hoppin House.

The John Brown House and the college belong to the College Hill Historic District, which comprises a number of well-preserved 18th– and 19th-century homes and buildings, as well as the Rhode Island School of Design.

The John Brown House sits just off Benefit Street. A concentration of restored colonial homes, churches and museums line the street, nicknamed “the Benefit Mile.” The Providence Preservation Society makes available a brochure for a self-guided  walking tour of the area as well as “A Guide to Providence Architecture.”


Five Things You’ll Remember About the John Brown House


The museum’s emphasis changed over the years and now addresses John Brown’s involvement with slavery. A decorative platter depicts the castle in Ghana that held enslaved people awaiting their voyage across the Atlantic.


Inside the house, Providence’s excellent woodworkers met up with the mahogany then available because people clear cut mahogany trees to make room for sugar plantations. Spectacular carved woodwork resulted, notably in the impressive staircase.


The bright, pictorial wallpaper in early America house museums often surprises visitors. The wallpaper in the John Brown House is no exception. The home’s interior has striking reproduction wallpaper throughout. In the front parlor, for example, blue and gold French wallpaper features Eurasian Red Squirrels. They inspired the Rhode Island Historical Society’s squirrel logo.

But you’ll find the most remarkable wallpaper in the Washington Wallpaper Room. The John Brown who bought the house in the 1930s commissioned an artist, Nancy McClellan, to paint an epic mural of Washington’s first inauguration in New York, from his arrival by sea to his parade through Wall Street and then to church.

The original John Brown, a huge fan of George Washington, would have been pleased.


The carriage in the carriage house, known as “John Brown’s chariot,” is said to be the oldest made in the United States of America. George Washington rode in it. Though he made two fact-finding and promotional tours of New England as president, he only came to Rhode Island once, in 1790. The feisty little state hadn’t ratified the Constitution the first time he came round, hence the snub.

When he did come to Providence, he stayed at an inn. But he came over to John Brown’s house for tea, and he rode around in John Brown’s chariot.

The Root That Ate Roger Williams

Roger Williams was buried in an unmarked grave in 1683, somewhere in a corner of a yard. Two hundred years later, some people tried to dig him up to give him a proper burial.

They started digging, and they found the earth’s texture indicated a body had been buried there. But no body. Instead, they found an apple tree root. Because of its shape, they assumed the root had consumed Roger Williams.

The Rhode island Historical Society has the root in its possession, and displays it in the basement of the John Brown House.

The root that ate Roger Williams. 19th century image.

If you visit the John Brown House…

Parking in Providence is no picnic, but the John Brown House has a parking lot to the side.

The entrance is a little tricky. You don’t enter through the front door, but on the side and to the rear.

The museum opens Tuesday through Saturday in the summer. Call ahead to check tour times, or you can take self guided audio tour. The museum is open for free on Gallery Night – the third Thursday of the month.

The historical society hosts concerts on the lawn for six weeks in July and August. They start at 6:30 p.m. On addition, Providence is a foodie town, and if you’re into Italian dining, check out Atwells Avenue.

Website: http://www.rihs.org/museums_jbh.html

52 Power Street

(401) 273-7507

Christian McBurney’s recent book, Dark Voyage, An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade (Westholme, 2022), tells the tale of the remarkable voyage of the Rhode Island privateer Marlborough to West Africa.

Images: John Brown House: By Filetime – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97569835. Frontal view of the John Brown House By Filetime – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97569827


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