Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, By Charles Rappleye, Simon & Schuster, 399 pp., illus., $27
Rhode Island, in the years when America was melding as a nation, was a conflicted place.
Local patriots seized and burned the British revenue ship Gaspee three years before the battles of Lexington and Concord, yet Rhode Island, which was founded as a tolerant refuge for Colonial dissenters, was the last state to ratify the Constitution -- prompting pro-ratification Providence and Newport to consider seceding and leading to proposals that Rhode Island itself be invaded and divided up between Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Thus it was not surprising that in the late winter of 1789, there was a dueling correspondence over the issue of slavery in the Providence Gazette and the rival United States Chronicle. Rhode Island's harbors on Narragansett Bay were centers for the American slave trade.
The debate, writes Charles Rappleye in ''Sons of Providence," ''became something of a sensation, the subject of excited speculation over the names of the anonymous authors."
It was of particular concern to Moses Brown, a member of one of the city's most prominent families and a leading opponent of the slave trade. He suspected that ''Citizen," the Gazette's pro-slavery writer, was none other than his older brother, John, who had long been active in commissioning and investing in ships for the trade. Responding as ''Monitor" in the Chronicle, Moses offered a detailed rebuttal -- which John, in turn, suspected was his brother's work. Moses's column, writes Rappleye, ''prompted a round of confession" as each brother revealed his identity to the other.
This was not the first nor would it be the last time that the brothers would stake out rival positions, from the Revolution to the ratification of the Constitution -- even as they collaborated on a number of civic projects, including the founding of the university that now bears the family name, and in several business ventures, including the establishment of the city's first bank. Their relationship, and its impact on the public issues of their times, is the subject of an absorbing account by Rappleye, a Los Angeles-based writer who happened on the story during a winter's visit to Providence.
John Brown (1736-1803) reveled in action -- he commanded the crew that seized the Gaspee -- and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. He was noted for throwing house parties on commencement day at Rhode Island College, later named Brown University.
Moses Brown (1738-1836) became a Quaker and adopted that group's somber dress, wide-brimmed hats, and modest lifestyle. Quaker beliefs in nonviolence led Moses to urge restraint and compromise as the Colonies moved toward open conflict with England. Later, as the Quakers became leaders in the nascent abolitionist movement, those beliefs would prompt him initially to withhold support for ratification of the Constitution because it acknowledged slave-holding.
But while Moses won moral victories, even legal ones, against the slave trade, his brother invariably trumped him. During John's single term as a congressman, he was defeated in his efforts to scuttle an anti-slave trade bill but won passage of a bill establishing a new customs district at Bristol -- the effect of which, writes Rappleye, was to hand ''a deepwater port to a band of notorious slavers."
Still, Rappleye writes, the story of the Brown brothers reveals a ''mutual engagement" in the great issue of slavery, a ''quintessentially American" story. ''No other abolitionist," he writes, ''had to face the reality of the slave trade so close to the center of his identity; no other slave trader had to fend off so persistent and so intimate a challenge to his prerogative."