University News

‘Sons of Providence’ author speaks on U.’s past

Contributing Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2012

Biographer Charles Rappleye proposed looking at the past as a continuum rather than a series of isolated events in a lecture inspired by his novel “Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the American Revolution,” the assigned summer reading for the class of 2016. Reflecting upon the novel that marked his first foray into history for a modest audience of professors and a handful of first-years in Salomon 101, Rappleye explored John and Moses Brown’s evolving legacy at the college that would later come to bear their name.

“History is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past,” Rappleye said in a nod to author William Faulkner. “History is not a bunch of old stories that sit on a shelf that you pull down once in a while. History is a sense of us as still in formation – what it is we are and how we are going to go about doing, stumbling sometimes and still taking form.”

“Sons of Providence” is as much a story of brotherhood as it is a historical account of 18th-century Rhode Island. The biography details the lives of two fifth-generation Rhode Island citizens – pacifist Quaker Moses and his brother John, a slave trader – for whom “blood was thicker than almost anything else,” Rappleye said. The class of 2016 discussed these themes of family, morality and conversion in seminars during orientation.

“We felt that in a year where Brown was welcoming a new president, it was important to reflect as a community on our common history,” said Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron.

As an investigative reporter, Rappleye said he was drawn to the extraordinary lives of John and Moses and their involvement with American slavery. “When you know the bigger picture and the longer history behind it, you realize slavery was there at the very beginning. The moral question of slavery was raised when they were talking about liberty and freedom and the underpinnings of what this country was going to be about,” Rappleye said. Slavery emerged as the most prominent lens through which the author examined the continuum of history, focusing on Moses’ abolitionism in the 18th century. 

“Part of what America is about is high ideals and high hypocrisy,” he said. “It was there from the very beginning.” 

But the most insightful moments of his speech arose in the question-and-answer session after Rappleye read two passages aloud – one about John and one about Moses – from his novel.  

Though “Sons of Providence” dealt with history in a scholastic tone, many of Rappleye’s frank views about the characters came to light in response to audience questions. When Bergeron said that she found the passages regarding John to be more compelling, Rappleye responded, “It’s true, I found John more likeable. Moses was more scolding. I mean, who would you like to get together with for a couple of beers after work? Probably John.”

Questions touched on topics including John Brown’s penchant for illicit trade and the permanence of family bonds in colonial America, but much of the discussion focused on John and Moses’ relationship with slavery. Representatives from the University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice handed out copies of the report to audience members outside of the auditorium, inviting everyone to an open discussion of the report in coming weeks.

“I see value in recognition of what happened. I don’t see much point in assigning blame or fixing guilt,” Rappleye said. “I don’t think that debt has been answered. I don’t think Brown University per se is obliged to take on a role especially in that regard, but America as a whole has to deal with it.”

“‘Reading ‘Sons of Providence’ taught me a lot about what it means to be self-powerful, in the sense that each brother went after their own dream, whether it was slavery or abolition,” said Jason Ginsberg ’16, who attended the event. “They each had immense passion for what they were doing, even if it didn’t follow social norms.” Ginsberg, along with Bergeron and several other first-years, discussed the Brown brothers’ legacy, among other topics, with Rappleye after the lecture and left with an autograph.

“Wander the streets, see the names of major families: Bowen, Angell. I myself live in Elmgrove (the name of Moses Brown’s country estate), but I never made the connection until tonight,” Bergeron said. “It’s important to know about the place that you have just come to – ultimately, you’ll discover more meaning as you spend four years here.” 

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