“slave trader … patriot”

I’m in Providence, RI. Walking past a fine eighteenth century house, I spotted a plaque with these words:

John Brown House

The home of John Brown reflecting the wealth and position gained from his lucrative career as slave trader, privateer, China trade merchant and patriot.

A project of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society

Also shown on the plaque is the seal representing a soldier of The First Rhode Island Regiment (1778)–“The Black Regiment.”

It’s a striking juxtaposition. The house of slave trader is decorated or even honored with a plaque purchased by an African American heritage society. John Brown’s “position” is attributed to the money he made from the transatlantic slave trade. But he is also called a “patriot.”

As a member of the Continental Congress and early House of Representatives, Brown was a founder of the United States. He was also a founder of Brown University. The source of his funds–hence his “position” in society, which made him a leader–was deeply immoral. Yet the United States Government and Brown University benefit all Americans. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, because I have had access to such institutions all my life and have benefited from them. (I’ve never had anything to do with Brown–but other private universities have given me various advantages.) Most people are born in positions from which it is very hard if not impossible to reach the Ivy League. It’s always worth asking whether, from behind a veil of ignorance, one would choose to have institutions like Brown University. Brown’s particular moral origin prompts that question but does not settle it. Perhaps the source of the funds is irrelevant. Or perhaps dirty money is mixed with good in all great institutions.

I had some of these thoughts as I sat, a few minutes later, in the pure interior of Roger Williams’ First Baptist Church (actually built 150 years after his time, in 1774-5). Williams denied the English King’s right to appropriate American land and carefully bought Providence from the native Narragansetts. It was a promising start and it led to a beautiful and dignified city–but one in which men had “lucrative careers” selling other people’s lives.