Grand and distinct, the John Brown House’s imposing federalist façade befits Providence’s most influential family. This 1788 mansion belonged to the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneur of his age: John Brown. A China trade merchant, slave trader, privateer, and Son of Liberty, John Brown Is also well known for his role as an instigator in the 1772 sinking of the Gaspee. John Brown (1736-1803) was one of six children born to James Brown II and Hope Power, of whom only four lived to adulthood: John, Nicholas, Moses, and Joseph.
Known for seeking enterprise anywhere he could, John Brown made his fortune as a slave trader, China trade merchant, real-estate speculator, shipbuilder, and privateer. The subject of slavery came to be a source of great turmoil within the Brown family. Seeking profit among the hundreds of Africa-bound slave ships leaving Rhode Island, the Brown family contracted the Sally in 1764. Captained by Esek Hopkins, the Sally’s voyage was crippled by delays, violent uprisings, and sickness among those held captive. The venture ended in disaster and the experience dissuaded John’s brothers from ever again directly involving themselves in the trade, though John went on to finance at least four additional voyages. He later was the first American to be tried and convicted for continuing his involvement in the slave trade, in violation of the Slave Trade Act passed by Congress in 1794.
A fierce individualist, John Brown helped found and lead the Sons of Liberty in Rhode Island. During the American Revolution, John Brown supplied the newly established Continental Navy with its very first ship, the USS Providence. Elected to 5th United States Congress in 1799, John Brown served as Rhode Island’s representative from 1799 to 1801.
Commanding an indomitable view upon College Hill at 52 Power Street, John Brown’s house now serves as a national historic landmark and house-museum. Above all, John Brown’s intended his home to communicate his status to other early American elites. From its grand wrap-around stairways, to its finely crafted ornamental archways, to its gilded and painted wallpaper, the home is a testament to the sheer material wealth and status that was to be expected of Rhode Island’s founding merchant dynasty.