A Timeline of the Brown Family and America’s Evolving Attitudes to Philanthropy
1st Generation – Chad Browne (before 1650)
In 1636, Roger Williams founded “Providence” on land granted by the Narragansett Tribe. Two years later, Chad Browne and family arrived in Boston but only stayed for six months. Chafing under the Puritans, they joined Williams. Chad became a settlement leader, serving as Baptist Church lay pastor, and helping to draft its first covenant.
In the U.S. – John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” sermon described the obligations of the rich and how to reconcile equality with economic inequality by balancing individual good with the good of the community. Disparities in wealth were divinely ordained “so that men would have more need of each other.”
2nd Generation – John Browne (1630-1706)
John followed in Chad’s footsteps and was elected to the first legislative assembly in 1657. In 1663, Rhode Island received an extraordinary charter from Charles II, granting freedom of religion, separation of Church and State, the ability to elect its own leaders, control over its military affairs, and freedom to trade.
In the U.S. – Cotton Mather’s “Essays To Do Good” stated that private charity could “harmonize the competitive and conflicting interest of a rapidly changing society.”
3rd Generation – “Elder” James Browne (1666-1732)
During King Philip’s War (1675-1732) when Providence was burned, James, then a child, was taken to Newport with most of Providence’s population. Following his father, James joined the Town Council, engaged in some retailing, served as pastor, then Baptist Church “Elder,” wrote a sermon in 1731 warning against maritime commerce and materialism.
In the U.S. – John Locke: “A trade is wholly inconsistent with a gentleman’s calling since merchants must be considered to be motivated by avarice rather than virtue.” A “gentleman” was a man of leisure who owned enough land to be “disinterested” and so could focus on politics and civic affairs.
4th generation – “Captain” James Browne (1698-1739) and Obadiah Browne (1712-1762)
At nineteen, James bought a small lot with a gangway and a cipher book of nautical problems; convinced his father-in -law Nicholas Power to sponsor a voyage to the West Indies and expand his commercial interests.
Captain James’s younger brother, Obadiah raised his six nephews and took over his brother’s business, adding a chocolate factory, a rope walk, and spermaceti candle works to the family’s network.
In the U.S. – Late 18th century is called the age of “self-interested benevolence.” By benefitting Providence, the Browns advanced their commercial ventures and enhanced their social status. There was no sense of altruism or equal opportunity.
5th generation – The Brown Brothers – Nicholas (1729-1791), Joseph (1733-1785), John (1736-1803) and Moses (1738-1836) and two others
Each brother brought a particular skill to the partnership: Nicholas was the perfect CEO; Joseph used his brilliant scientific mind to perfect the candle-making technique and build an iron furnace, also he was an amateur astronomer (observed the Transit of Venus) and architect; John was the daring, risk-taking, hard-driving brother; and Moses, who became a Quaker, had a keen sense of finance and marketing, as well as wide ranging interests in science, medicine, and social causes.
The four brothers sought to become “gentlemen of Public Responsibility:” dropped the “e” in Browne, bought silver, a coat of arms, fine furniture (each commissioned a bookcase-on-desk;) took the lead on civic projects (paving and lighting the streets, importing a fire engine); helped found a primary school; served in the Rhode Island Legislature (often rigging the vote). Nicholas imported books from England for the town library. In 1771, the Brown brothers brought the College of Rhode Island to Providence, giving the land and building University Hall.
In 1772, John Brown led the raid to burn the British customs ship Gaspee, considered the first violent act of the Revolution. After the War, John and Nicholas led the push for Rhode Island to ratify the Constitution (1790). The brothers oversaw the construction of a market house and, soon after, the First Baptist Church.
John Brown launched into the China trade in 1787; built a grand brick mansion on College Hill; insisted on continuing with slaving ventures. Moses Brown launched the Providence Abolition Society in 1789 and built the nation’s first textile mill in 1791 with Englishman Samuel Slater.
In the U.S. – The Second Great Awakening preached man’s spiritual equality before God, moral reform and improving society. A new middle class of shopkeepers and artisans saw themselves as moral guardians of a meritocracy based on hard work; self-discipline replaced traditional deference toward authority. America becomes a “Redeemer Nation,” where social stability came from adopting correct moral principles.
6th Generation – Nicholas Brown II (1769-1841) The central figure of Grappling with Legacy
Nicholas II lost his mother at 14 and all but one of his siblings. Raised during the American Revolution, he graduated from a dilapidated College of Rhode Island and then was sent to deal with rioting farmers – all of which led to a lifelong yearning for law and order. Inherited a vast fortune thanks to Hamilton’s war bond assumption plan. His sister Hope married the remarkable Thomas Ives, who had apprenticed at 14 to her father.
Brown & Ives achieved great success in the China Trade until the Embargo and War of 1812. Nicholas II was deeply influenced by Moses Brown’s social conscience. He served in the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1807-1821, where he defended free trade against the rising protectionism of the factory owners. In 1804, he endowed a chair in memory of his uncle at the College of Rhode Island (renamed Brown University), supported many Baptist and black causes, helped found the Providence Atheneaum, and endowed the first hospital for the insane.
By the mid-1820s, faced with the decline of maritime commerce and the industrialization of Rhode Island, growing social chaos, increasingly partisan politics, and two sons who refused to follow in his footsteps, he turned to the one institution he could influence, pouring funds into “his” university to provide a moral compass through a classical curriculum to the next generation of American leaders.
In the U.S. – Alexis de Tocqueville: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” Philanthropists fund actively those previously deemed beyond help – the deaf, blind and insane. Americans start thinking about the prevention of social issues.
7th Generation – John Carter (1791-1874) and two others
After graduating from Brown University, John Carter toured Europe, preferring museums and cathedrals to the factories and banks his father wished he would visit. He dutifully returned to Providence but never enjoyed working for Brown & Ives. After his father’s death, he began collecting books on the discovery of the Americas, and how the old and new worlds influenced each other – eventually accumulating the world’s largest library of “Americana.”
In the U.S. – The Gilded Age – In his essay “Wealth,” Andrew Carnegie urged his fellow millionaires to use their proven business acumen not to “die rich” but to build “the ladders on which the aspiring can rise,” such as libraries, universities, museums, and parks. First professionally managed foundations are formed.
8th Generation – John Nicholas (1861-1900) and two others
John Nicholas continued the stewardship of his father’s collection but died age 39, one month after the completion of the Providence Public Library. His brother Harold died two weeks later. The collection went to Brown University, with a building and an endowment.
In the U.S. – WW I and the Great Depression – “Mass philanthropy” was promoted, reinforcing the perception that giving is part of being American. FDR introduced the revolutionary concept of government responsibility for the “common welfare.” Philanthropists like John Simon Guggenheim included “ the appreciation of beauty” among their broad goals. Art and culture became vital components of the human experience.
9th Generation – John Nicholas II (1900-1979)
After earning BA and MA degrees in art history at Harvard, John Nicholas II restored important medieval and Byzantine sites, preserved colonial buildings, and generally brought “art into life.” During World War II, he was a “Monuments Man,” finding and returning art stolen by the Nazis. He then served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air and instrumental in desegregation.
In the U.S. – The 1957 Tax Act enshrined the deductibility of charitable donations. Philanthropy boomed.
10th Generation – Nicholas (1932), John Carter III (1934-2002), Angela (1938) Nicholas dropped out of Harvard in his junior year to start again at the Naval Academy. He served 30 years including as Executive Officer to Admiral Samuel Gravely, the Navy’s first African-American admiral. Afterwards he ran the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Preserve Rhode Island. In 1989, he sold his ancestor’s Townsend-Goddard bookcase-on-desk at Christie’s for $12.1 million – the highest price at the time ever paid for a piece of decorative art – in order to fund the restoration of the Nightingale-Brown house, which was given to Brown University in 1995 to house the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage.
At age 34, Carter was appointed director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where he would transform American museum culture. Angela spent a lifetime serving on non-profit boards.
The United States is experiencing a second “Gilded Age” and philanthropic giving by the wealthiest Americans is increasing dramatically. In 2015, $373 billion were directed to 1.5 million public charities. The next four decades are expected to witness an extraordinary “generational wealth transfer,” conservatively estimated at $60 trillion, of which $27 trillion will be earmarked for charity. But charity alone will not solve the world’s ills; only by harnessing market forces through “do good-do well” enterprises that take risks and measure impact will effective solutions be found.
11th Generation – Sylvia (1961) and seven others
After studying, then working in various aspects of economic development (from project finance on Wall Street to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees), Sylvia decided in 2007 to focus on donor education (how to give more strategically and thoughtfully) and impact investing.