Another Rhode Island First

Another Rhode Island first

Last year, $41 billion were given to America’s universities.  Donors fund higher education for many reasons, but most are rooted in the notion that universities are agents of social change.  This practice started in Rhode Island, well before the Gilded Age philanthropists endowed universities and libraries.

Nicholas Brown II was born in 1769, son and namesake of the eldest of the famous “Four Brown Brothers.” His childhood and adolescence were marked by anxiety.  Before age 18, he had lost his mother and nine of ten siblings; his family’s maritime business was almost ruined by the blockade of Narragansett Bay during the Revolution. At ten, a very homesick Nicholas was sent to boarding school, then at 13 to a derelict College of Rhode Island (which his family had brought to Providence).  He graduated in 1786 just as merchants were swept out of power by a “Country Party” who introduced paper money, which led to terrible inflation.  Nicholas’s first job was to face farmers rioting at a family store in Grafton, Massachusetts.  The Browns were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with huge debts from ill-advised purchases in England and a major investment in insolvent war bonds.  Meanwhile, his two uncles, John and Moses, fought publicly about the slave trade.

Then in 1791, Nicholas Sr. died, leaving this mess to his 22-year old son and his daughter Hope.

Fortunately, Hope fell in love with father’s remarkable apprentice, Thomas Poynton Ives. Thus, Nicholas acquired an invaluable partner and brother-in-law. In a second stroke of luck, Alexander Hamilton’s federal assumption plan for state war debt meant the family’s war bonds were suddenly worth an enormous sum.

Brown & Ives had two choices: the China trade, pioneered by Uncle John, or textile manufacturing, pioneered by Uncle Moses.  They chose the China (tea) and Java (coffee) trades, as well as banking, turnpikes, canals and later railroads. But they were also inspired by Uncle Moses’s social conscience; Nicholas became Vice President of the Providence Abolition Society and supported many Freed Blacks and their causes. He gave to the College of Rhode Island (renamed Brown University following his $5,000 donation in 1804), to the Baptist and other churches, and to missionary and Bible societies- typical early 19th century charity when America’s new middle class believed social ills could be “redeemed” by Sunday schools, temperance and hard work.

But by the 1820s, an industrial economy and bustling cities had replaced the orderly, rural colonial economy. The population was on the move, streaming out West while immigrants poured across the Atlantic. Politics became bitterly partisan.  Andrew Jackson increased import duties, which boosted Rhode Island’s factories but proved devastating for maritime commerce.  Along with growing numbers of dispossessed factory workers and immigrants, social tensions increased.  The era was marked with constant unrest: in Providence, the 1826 Hardscrabble Riot and the 1831 Olney Lane riot were both racially motivated.  Worse, Nicholas’s two sons refused to follow dutifully in their father’s business footsteps.

So he turned to the one institution he could still influence: the college that bore his name. Brown was going through a difficult time.  Its president had lost all authority due to a religious controversy. Nicholas brought in Francis Wayland, whose iron rule lasted 28 years.  He poured money into new buildings, a library, and scientific equipment.  But he insisted on a classical curriculum rather than newly fashionable “practical courses,” because he believed liberal arts would produce educated men imbued with social responsibility.

Nicholas recognized it was unrealistic for Americans to give up private interests for public good.  Rather they needed a moral compass, a set of values to guide them through the era’s stormy seas.  And Brown University would provide that compass.

Such a vision was unprecedented.  Until then, no one had considered a university so emphatically as an agent of social change nor given so much money to a university in their lifetime, to train the leaders of tomorrow (not just colonial ministers and lawyers).  Today, college applicants are often asked “How will you change the world?” That question was first posed in Rhode Island.