Moses Brown

views updated May 23 2018

Moses Brown

Moses Brown (1738-1836) was an American manufacturer and merchant. Quaker discipline tempered the career of this successful New England business man.

Moses Brown was born into a family of merchants of Providence, R.I. He began his business education as apprentice to his uncle, Obadiah Brown. The elder Brown's interests included not only the West Indies trade but also insurance, moneylending, and the manufacture of spermaceti candles—diversification typical of the era of merchant capitalism. On the death of his uncle in 1762, Moses joined his three older brothers in the firm of Nicholas Brown and Company. To candlemaking and the shipping trade they added an ironworks. By the 1770s the Browns were one of the great mercantile families of New England.

After the death of his first wife in 1773, Brown withdrew from his business commitments and remained inactive until the end of the decade. He became a Quaker, a faith shared by his second and third wives, Mary Olney and Phoebe Lockwood. During this period he took part in the antislavery movement in Rhode Island. He freed his own slaves, aided other slaves to escape, and helped freedmen of Arican descent maintain themselves.

Then Brown became an early sponsor of textile manufacturing. In 1789 he formed a company with his son-in-law, William Almy, to manufacture cotton cloth. His interest in this phase of manufacturing led him to invite Samuel Slater, who had worked at the famed Arkwright Mills in England, to re-create their advanced cloth-producing machinery in Rhode Island. When completed, this was the first water-powered cotton mill in America, and the success of the Almy, Brown and Slater Firm was ensured. Brown helped found the Providence Bank in 1791, then once more withdrew from business management.

Brown's deliberate withdrawals from the business world indicated his anxiety to achieve religious peace by escaping worldly preoccupations. He never achieved quietism, however; instead, his religious impulse was channeled into programs aimed at improving the physical and moral health of his fellows. He had sponsored an unsuccessful effort to found a public school in Providence in the 1760s, and in 1770 he had helped bring Rhode Island College, now Brown University, to Providence. Although to some degree he shared the Quaker suspicion that higher education weakened the fundamentals of piety, he worked for decades to found a Friends' school. In 1819 the New England Yearly Meeting Boarding School became a reality, and in 1904 it was renamed the Moses Brown School.

Brown's interest in business enterprises was conditioned by a concern as statesmanlike as it was business-like. He was actively involved in distributing relief to the poor. He was conscious of the impact of any interruption of commerce, and he hoped that textile manufactures would provide a source of continuous employment for the poor. He urged tariffs, bounties, and child labor in a report prepared for Alexander Hamilton when the secretary of the Treasury was drafting his famous position paper on the state of American manufactures.

Further Reading

The most comprehensive biography of Brown is Mack Thompson, Moses Brown: Reluctant Reformer (1962). James B. Hedges, The Browns of Providence Plantations (2 vols., 1952-1968), provides an exciting and detailed history of the business ventures of the Brown brothers. Robert M. Hazelton, Let Freedom Ring! (1957), discusses Brown as a Quaker. □