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The Brown Brothers Debate the Trade

By the time of the American Revolution, Moses Brown had emerged as the most important anti-slavery leader in Rhode Island. He was instrumental in the enactment of Rhode Island's Gradual Abolition Act of 1784, as well as in passage of a 1787 state law prohibiting Rhode Islanders from participating in the slave trade. When the state proved unable or unwilling to enforce the latter law, Brown founded the Providence Abolition Society, an organization dedicated to bringing prosecutions against those who continued to traffic in slaves illegally. He also contributed to the passage of federal laws in 1793 and 1800 prohibiting Americans from trafficking slaves to ports outside the United States. These laws were also ignored by slave traders, nowhere more flagrantly than in Rhode Island.

As Moses emerged as the slave trade's most passionate critic, his brother John emerged as the trade's most vocal defender. The dispute between the brothers was initially confined to private letters [1], but it burst into the public in 1789, following the founding of the Providence Abolition Society. In a series of blistering newspaper letters, written under the pseudonym "A Citizen," John denounced the "abolitioners" alternately as moral fanatics intent on imposing their morality on others and as thieves intent on depriving fellow citizens of their lawful property. [2] [3] [4] [5] In 1796, John Brown became the first Rhode Islander, and probably the first American, to be prosecuted in federal court for violating the 1793 federal law against trafficking slaves to foreign ports.

The prosecution sparked more correspondence, with Moses accusing John of deliberately trying to test the new federal law and John accusing Moses and his anti-slavery allies of waging a personal vendetta against him. [6] [7] [8] [9] Though John openly acknowledged having violated the law, he was ultimately acquitted of the charges against him, an outcome that Moses attributed to the "Peculiar Turn" of the Newport jury. [10] The verdict was a boon to slave traders, who threw themselves into the business with new vigor. Over the next decade, the Rhode Island slave trade would reach its historical peak, with upwards of fifty ships per year clearing for Africa.

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