Sylvia Brown Smart Donors



June 3rd, 1989

I looked up with a start as auctioneer Christopher Burge rapped his gavel on the podium. “We now move effortlessly to lot one hundred,” the President of Christie’s New York called out loudly, then paused to add with impeccable smoothness, “. . . and I wonder why there are so many people in the room?”

Burge continued: “The magnificent Nicholas Brown Chippendale mahogany block-and-shell desk showing on the screen, and for so many months in the room next door. Lot 100.”

Even the television crews at the back of the room fell silent.

“Two million–anyone to start?”

Within three minutes, the bidding climbed to $10,750,000. Only two paddles continued to rise. Then it hit eleven million. Burge leaned forward, gripping the front of the podium.

Silence. The hammer went down. “Sold in front then. All done for eleven million. Eleven million.”

I had just witnessed the sale of the most expensive piece of furniture in the world.

My father’s desk.

To many experts, it is the most majestic and spectacularly beautiful piece of furniture ever made in America, a nine-and-a-half-foot masterpiece from its scrolling Chinese ogee feet to the tip of its corkscrew flamed finials. “One more inch, and it would have been a freak,” commented the great American furniture collector Maxim Karolik. It was made in the 1760s from Cuban mahogany in the Townsend-Goddard workshop of Newport, Rhode Island. In this American colony where merchants were kings, such desk-bookcases evoked their complex lives and were considered the ultimate status symbol. A few remain today in museum collections. In 1989, my father’s desk was the last in private hands: the tallest, almost the narrowest, and certainly the most intricately carved of them all.

I did my homework at that desk.

Four years earlier, in 1985, after both my grandparents had died, our family home in Providence, Rhode Island, was discovered to be about to collapse from dry rot and termites. The 1792 Nightingale-Brown House is not only the largest eighteenth century wooden frame house still standing in the United States, but also one of its most graceful and harmonious Georgian-style buildings. My father, along with his brother and sister, felt strongly that this historic landmark should be saved and turned into a center for scholarship, one providing a congenial environment for visiting researchers. Since the family was unable to raise sufficient cash to restore the house, my father decided to sell his most valuable possession, the desk-bookcase which had come down to him through five generations.

It was valued for insurance purposes at $2 million, just about the initial estimate to renovate the house. So, in 1988, my father donated the desk to the “John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization,” named after my grandfather. The Center’s new director, Rob Emlen, was charged with selecting an auction house for the Americana sales the following May. But before he could finalize an agreement, Emlen was contacted by the pre-eminent New York antiques dealer, Harold Sack, who had a private client willing to pay $11 million for the desk.

Few could have resisted such an offer. That enormous sum was enough to restore the house, pay capital gains taxes, and still allow my father to keep some of the money for himself. “No,” he responded, “I have given my word. If the desk is attracting this kind of interest, so much the better for the Center. One icon is saving the other.” He also insisted that the auction should proceed. Christie’s won the mandate by offering $50,000 to have a copy made, and by endowing a lecture series at the Center.

Amazingly, when the hammer fell on June 3rd, 1989, the high bid came from the same collector, Texas tycoon Robert Bass, who had instructed Sack to make the private offer. With the additional auction house commission, the desk finally cost him $12.1 million dollars. The underbidder was Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress who had done so much to restore Newport’s colonial houses and build the collections of the Samuel Whitehorne House Museum. She had even requested a cardboard mock-up of the desk to ensure it would fit in that space. But she set herself a bid limit of $10.5 million; Harold Sack’s budget was $18 million.

Six years later, in 1995, following a renovation which in the end cost over $9 million, my father presented the house, along with its furniture, family archives and an endowment, to Brown University.

As one of Rhode Island’s founding families, his ancestors had been instrumental in bringing a Baptist university, The College of Rhode Island, to Providence in 1770. Many years later, in 1804, the college was renamed Brown University to honor another gift, one of many made over 250 years by the Brown family. Thus, my father viewed his gesture as no more than the continuation of a family philanthropic tradition. This long-established practice had, in my own perception and (as I then naively believed) in the eyes of the world, actually come to define my family.

March 17th, 2004

Fifteen years after the record-breaking auction, I was once again sitting in a crowded room, this time for the inaugural symposium of Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice. The event was entitled “Unearthing the Past: Brown University, the Brown Family and the Rhode Island Slave Trade.” And once again there were international reporters present.

One of the panelists, Dr. Joanne Pope Melish, author of Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and Race in New England, 1780-1860, pulled no punches. As I listened in shock, she condemned each of my eighteenth century ancestors without exception and announced flatly, “There were no good Browns.”

By 2004, the highly-charged issue of how slavery and the slave trade were intertwined with the early history of our nation and many of its great institutions had come to the forefront of national consciousness. Two years earlier, a number of companies that could trace their roots to the eighteenth century (including Aetna Insurance, Fleet Boston, and the railway giant CSX) had been named in a class action suit for alleged “conspiracy, unjust enrichment and human rights violations” in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and reparations were sought for the descendants of slaves. Several institutions of higher learning were also mentioned as having benefited from the business of slavery–among them Harvard, Yale and Brown Universities. Although dismissed by the Chicago Federal Court in January 2004, the suit had received substantial press coverage and had galvanized communities. To this day, no consensus exists on how to implement reparations.

Most universities implicated had responded by organizing symposia or publishing articles, such as Yale’s 2001 Tercentennial piece, on the connections between their founders and the slave trade. Brown University, however, chose to undertake a bolder and more public endeavor. The university’s president, Ruth Simmons, the first African-American female head of an Ivy League institution, announced soon after taking office that she was forming a “University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice” to organize academic events and activities “that might help the nation and the Brown community think deeply, seriously, and rigorously about the questions raised” by the national debate over slavery and reparations.

A few days before the Steering Committee’s inaugural symposium, The New York Times printed a front-page story about the Brown University initiative. The response was swift and extensive, focused specifically on the narrow but sensational issue of reparations. Some questioned Brown University’s motives: “Is this whole process just a pretentious public relations scam, a way to position the university on the politically correct cutting edge?” asked the New York Observer.

The Brown family was placed squarely at the center of the debate. As often happens when issues are highly emotional, nuance and complexity were sacrificed to facilitate a simpler narrative of “heroes and villains.” My eighteenth century ancestors were indeed successful merchants in an Atlantic economy underpinned by the slave trade. Since our family archive is on the University’s campus, it was expedient for the Steering Committee to focus on the Brown family rather than to conduct laborious research on the more than seven hundred Rhode Island families also involved in the slave trade. The media picked up and amplified the spotlight. In September 2005, a New Yorker piece by the Pulitzer-prize winner Frances FitzGerald devoted a third of its pages to the Brown family. In March 2006, the Providence Journal published a five-part front-page series on Rhode Island’s slave trade, two days of which covered the Browns in the Colonial era. Later that year, Charles Rappleye, a Los Angeles–based journalist, published Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the American Revolution.

The book you are now reading was born from two seminal events which may seem diametrically opposed: my father’s decision to give his inheritance (and mine) to Brown University, and the transformation of the Brown family into the poster child for the evils of the slave trade.

Since that day in 2004 when I sat ignorant and unable to respond, I have tried to understand what fuels our family’s enduring compulsion to philanthropy–Self-interest? A feeling of guilt? A sense of genuine altruism? Or simply an odd gene that is baked into our DNA?

Some might expect that I would produce yet another guilt-ridden apology by a descendant of eighteenth century merchants. Others might relish my attacking Brown University’s handling of the complex slavery issue. Instead, my research has led me on a voyage of self-discovery to understand the origins of my deep personal interest in philanthropy.

My entire professional career has been focused on economic development and emerging markets. Ten years ago, a course in strategic philanthropy changed my life and prompted a return to my Rhode Island roots. Now, I engage with a variety of nonprofits in strategic planning, governance and donor education. Thus, through the lens of my own vocation, the story of my ancestors became the chronicle of American giving over three hundred years: its evolution from colonial-era charity to the impact-based approaches of today.

Charitable giving is such an intrinsic part of the American ethos that its history deserves to be told. Among the ten generations of Browns that have preceded me in Rhode Island, I have chosen to focus on the man who made the switch from self-interested benevolence to genuine altruism: Nicholas Brown II (1769-1841). He was one of America’s earliest philanthropists in the modern sense of the term—someone who seeks to apply science and reason in a proactive manner to make the world a better place (as opposed to charity which is limited to concrete, direct acts of compassion and connection to others). He also was an emotionally complicated individual who lived during fascinating but troubled times when the new nation was defining itself; an interesting parallel with the America of today.

Nicholas Brown II (known to his contemporaries as “Nick”) was deeply affected by his childhood during the Revolution and the deaths of nine of his ten siblings. Although he did not reveal his inner thoughts and emotions in diaries or letters, I found a fascinating tension between his yearning for law and order and his concern for those less fortunate; between his resistance to changing times and his promotion of radical new ideas for improving society. His tale still resonates today: that of a tenacious business man, steeped in traditional paternalistic values, who became a humanitarian. He not only pioneered the modern notion that universities can be forces for social good, but also funded one of the country’s first insane asylums.

His son and grandson emulated the philanthropists of the “Gilded Age,” such as Andrew Carnegie who encouraged successful businessmen to build “the ladders on which the aspiring can rise” —particularly libraries. His twentieth century descendants sought to transform the human experience through great art and architecture. My grandfather, John Nicholas Brown II, called “The richest baby in America . . . maybe the world” when his father died in 1900, was a Monuments Man and a founder of the urban historic preservation movement. Following a naval career, my father became the executive director of several non-profit organizations. J. Carter Brown, my uncle, was the visionary director of The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where he conceived the “blockbuster exhibition” and left an indelible mark on America’s arts and culture. Angela Brown Fischer, my aunt, has devoted a lifetime to non-profit board service.

Since there exist few well documented case studies of an American family over twelve generations, the story of the Browns may help explain how philanthropy became such an integral part of our national ethos. Indeed, one of the unique aspects of the Brown family legacy is our archive. Alongside the urge to play a civic role there seems to co-exist a compulsion to save every scrap of paper. It was the ready accessibility of this archive on Brown University’s campus which made it easy for the Steering Committee’s researchers to pick items selectively to support their case. But for somebody seeking to address the family history in greater depth and perspective, over a longer period, the archive perversely presents more of a challenge. For a start, it is truly enormous, spread across three libraries, and even today not entirely catalogued. Much of it is a business archive; the early Browns did not indulge in expressing personal opinions or emotions in private correspondence.

Somewhat surprisingly, Brown University has never commissioned a biography of its namesake (though the paucity of Nicholas Brown II’s private correspondence and his evident reticence to express personal feelings make a full-scale conventional biography unfeasible). There also is almost nothing penned by the women of my direct family until the late nineteenth century. Although I am fortunate to have inherited my grandparents’ library of Rhode Island books, many privately printed, and to have been shown diaries and manuscripts still in private family collections, I did not set out to fill this biographical gap in a literal sense. Rather, I hope to shine some light on the remarkable scope of Nicholas II’s endeavours by describing the forces, beliefs and motivations that moulded him and, in turn, his impact upon the times and society in which he lived. He is the focal point for my family’s wider story.

I would like also to make my position clear on the painful issue of slavery that originally catalyzed me to sit down and write, lest it may somehow be perceived as “the elephant in the room.” This is not a book about slavery and the slave trade, although both must inevitably feature in the story. It does not seek to defend those eighteenth century ancestors who participated in or advocated for the trade, to whatever degree. The legacy of slavery must be faced and the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice made a bold attempt to do so.

However, it is just as fatuous to apply the precepts of the present to the mores of the past as it is to affix the same label to twelve generations of one family. Among my collateral ancestors are both John Brown, an ardent proponent and spokesman for the slave trade, and his younger brother Moses, one of the earliest and most fervent advocates of abolition. Both were intelligent and thoughtful men, each responsible for his own actions. In a much more religious age when people still lived in the expectation of divine judgement, each followed the dictates of his own conscience and was no doubt content to be judged accordingly. To modern perceptions, some of those dictates undoubtedly come across more sympathetically than others; painful topics such as child labor or mental illness offend our modern sensibilities far more than they did two hundred years ago.

Rather than play a sterile blame-game, the best way anyone can seek to atone for the sins of the past is, I believe, to address the very real and continuing problems of the present. Eleven generations after my ancestor Chad Browne arrived in Rhode Island, I relish answering the same irrepressible urge to do my part—in my own way.