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1797-03-15

Brown, Moses to Brown John; March 15, 1797
In late 1795, John Brown returned to the slave trade for a final time, dispatching a ship, the Providence, to Africa. The venture proved a financial success: the Providence, under the command of Peleg Wood, acquired 229 captives in the Gold Coast, 198 of whom survived to be sold in Cuba. Unfortunately for Brown, the venture violated a recently enacted federal law prohibiting Americans from trafficking slaves to ports outside the United States. (The slave trade into American ports was protected by the U.S. Constitution, which contained a clause barring Congress from closing American ports to slaves for twenty years - that is, until 1807.) The Providence Abolition Society, an organization founded by John's brother, Moses, responded by bringing a prosecution. The case against John Brown provoked great controversy in Rhode Island, as well as an extraordinary exchange of letters between the brothers. In this letter, dated March 15, 1797, Moses expresses his deep distress at John's action, and accuses him of mounting the voyage in a deliberate effort to try the strength of the new federal law. John was eventually ordered to forfeit the offending ship, but in the ensuring criminal trial he escaped with an acquittal, an outcome that Moses ascribed to the "peculiar turn" of the Newport jury.