Sylvia Brown Smart Donors


Grappling with Legacy

Rhode Island’s Brown Family and the American Philanthropic Impulse

What fuels a family’s compulsion for philanthropy?


When Sylvia Brown’s father handed much of his inheritance to Brown University in 1995, the gesture maintained a 300-year family philanthropic tradition. Less than a decade later, the University launched its Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice at whose inaugural symposium one speaker declared “there were no good Browns.” Grappling With Legacy was born of the juxtaposition between these starkly opposed perspectives.

Sylvia has delved into one of the country’s largest family archives to understand what fuels a multi-generational compulsion to giving: Self-interest? A feeling of guilt? A sense of genuine altruism? The Brown family mirrors America’s evolving urge to do good — from colonial era charity, to reformist initiatives in the Early Republic, to the philanthropy of the Gilded Age, to social impact investing today.

Set against the distinctive backdrop of Rhode Island, this rich family saga provides a fresh perspective on a frequently overlooked era surprisingly akin to the present day, characterized by economic dislocation, partisan politics, and growing social disparities. Out of this age of unrest emerged America’s philanthropic impulse, which has become such an intrinsic part of our national ethos.

Sylvia’s tale is anchored around Nicholas Brown II (1769-1841), an emotionally complex individual who lived during a fascinating but troubled era when the new nation was defining itself. In him, we find the timeless tensions between a yearning for order and a concern for those less fortunate; between resistance to changing times and radical ideas for improving society; between authoritarian parents and defiant children. Distressed by the turmoil of the times, he poured his wealth into institutions intended to provide society with a moral compass. Above all, he pioneered the modern notion of a university as a force for good.

Praise for the Book

“This is a fascinating and intellectually honest work about a remarkable family that has played a major role in the history of Providence and Rhode Island. Sylvia Brown has made a tremendous contribution in writing this wonderful book.”​

Vartan Gregorian
President of Carnegie Corporation of New York,
Former President of Brown University

“A splendid work of history—an honest, clearly written, and solidly based account of the private and public lives through four centuries of one of America’s most important and fascinating families.”

Gordon Wood
Pulitzer Prize for History,
Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus – Brown University