GaspeeVirtual Archives
What Was John Brown's Defense?

Mack Thompson's biography of Moses Brown (younger brother of John) says that John Brown was arrested in April 1775 for his role in the burning of the Gaspee.  While in "the brig," John drew up a defense, and when Moses came to his aid, Moses presented John's defense to the British Admiral Graves.  We know that Brown was released soon after Judge Andrew Oliver, a member of the royal commission that investigated the incident, told Admiral Graves there was no valid case against John Brown.  (Mack Thompson thinks it also helped that John Brown promised to try to get the Rhode Island Assembly to "adopt a more moderate and conciliatory attitude toward the Acts of Trade and to send a delegation to negotiate with General Gage about a settlement of differences.")  But, does anyone know what the defense was that John Brown drew up while in custody?

Posted to Gaspee Forum by Maxine Stansell, January 24, 2001
Regarding John Brown's Defense

Mack Thompson thinks John Brown was released simply because of political reasons.  That is probably right.  This was the start of the Revolutionary War, and John Brown was one of the most influential persons in the RI legislature.  The RI legislature had before it a message from the British asking for negotiations to end the "differences", and the RI legislature had ignored it. John promised to ask the legislature to negotiate, and he did do that.  I think that was the real reason the British released him.

Aside from political reasons, there were legal reasons to release him. According to Mack Thompson's book, John Brown had been arrested by an English ship commander for transporting supplies to the American Army forming in the Boston area.  But there probably was no real proof of that. Brown could argue that he was just sending cargo to be sold to the highest bidder, which could be the loyalist townspersons of Boston.

According to Mack Thompson's book, John Brown was arrested for one thing, but when Moses Brown got to Boston and saw General Gage, Gage informed Moses that John was being held for being a leader of the Gaspee burning.  Gage probably got that information from some informer, but it was hearsay.

The logical defense of that time, to that charge would be a legal defense:
     1. It could not be argued by Gage that he was taking action to further investigate the Gaspee affair.  This would be assuming authority in conflict with his previous direct orders. The Gaspee investigation was the subject of the jurisdiction of the special Commission set up to investigate the Gaspee affair; and any attempt by Gage to investigate or take action would be in direct conflict with the Admiralty's direct orders that he had received in 1772 that he was to assist the Commission (not to usurp it).
     2. It could not be argued by Gage that he was taking action under martial law to find treason that had occurred in 1772. Martial law is only for actions done in time of war.  The 1772 Gaspee affair was still a matter for the civil authorities, and Gage was acting illegally in taking upon himself the power of the civil/criminal courts in Boston (which still existed at this time in the spring of 1775 )for non-martial affairs.
     3. The Commission, and the civil authorities of both England and Massachusetts/Rhode Island had found no reason to have him arrested, and had not issued a warrant for his arrest.   Without a warrant being issued for his arrest, he could not be arrested for a felony or treason in 1772. Therefore, there was no legal excuse Gage could have to arrest or hold John Brown, for the offense stated by Gage.  Gage was committing a "trespass against the person" of John Brown, and Gage could be sued by John for damages for illegal arrest.   Boston, under Gage, still had civil courts, and even Tory judges would have to find Gage guilty of civil wrong.
     4. In short, any action in holding John Brown for involvement in the Gaspee affair was illegal and unconstitutional under English law, and, furthermore, Gage could be personally liable for damages to John, in a civil court.

No one KNOWS what John Brown's legal defense was, but I suspect that was it.

Posted to Gaspee Forum by Leonard Bucklin, August 29, 2001
More below, e-mailed by Leonard Bucklin, August 1, 2002 in response to the query regarding the Rescue Mission to Free John Brown (see:  Most is conjectural in nature.

You can find some brief notes by me at the last half of the page at

I think you might like to look at the book cited in our Library page as ---Thompson, M. (1962). Moses Brown, Reluctant Reformer (pp. 1 - 316). Williamsburg, VA: Univ. of North Carolina Press. F 83 B875.   That book describes the incident from the point of view of Moses Brown, and describes the bargaining by Moses with the English.

The site you have is wrong when it says Brown was --originally-- charged with the Gaspee affair.  The original charge was being in charge of the ships carrying food to the enemy forces (and my recollection is that the flour was the main item RI sent, but Brown also had some gun and powder in
his ships).  (And of course, it was 1775, not 1774, when Washington was General Washington.)

My recollection is that the English Navy hands off the prisoner to the Army, and that the charge of carrying goods to the American forces is suddenly dropped in favor of a new one of the Gaspee attack.  When Moses gets to the English forces he is surprised to find he is not negotiating on the charge he expected, but rather the Gaspee is the subject matter now of the jailing --- and that the charge of gun-running by the Brown fleet is not even being discussed by the military

Moses goes to a former Gaspee Commissioner and then goes to Gage to make the case that there is no valid Gaspee charge against his brother.

I agree that this helps us understand at least more of post-Gaspee events, and the peculiar messages from Montague to the Gaspee Commission which listed persons but not why Montague thought they were of interest.

The army and navy had Brown on a valid change of providing stuffs to the enemy in the ship in which he was seized. It was a military charge on which there would be military justice. There was no reason to change the charge to the earlier civil authority charge, unless Gage thought the evidence against him was so convincing on the Gaspee matter that they were confident of moving to that.   (Of possibly, because of the prominence of Brown, Gage would have preferred to send the hot potato decision of punishment to the civil authorities.)

The fact that Gage decided to change the charge against Brown to one for the Gaspee attack, but then let him go when Moses got the former Gaspee Commissioner involved suggests to me:

  • that ARMY military intelligence spies were the sources from which Montague had submitted various names to the Gaspee investigating commission, and the reason why Montague had not given the names of the sources,.
  • And that the sources reported accurate information about the Gaspee attack.
  • And that the sources knew Brown as being the head of the Gaspee affair,
  • But that these sources were so highly placed that the ARMY did not want to jeopardize future information by revealing the names of the spies, even to the Commissioners.
(Let your imagination run wild, and assume that my theory that Brown may have had in his pocket on the Gaspee night a warrant for arrest of Dudingston is right. Then Montague's naming of the three lawyers to the Commission makes sense, especially if the spy was highly placed in the Rhode Island community, and naming Brown at the same time as naming the lawyers would have made it obvious who the spy was.  E.g., if Brown, the spy, and the three lawyers were involved in a meeting for the sole purpose of drawing up a warrant for arrest of Dudingston, the best Montague could do to give
information to the Commission would be to name the three lawyers, without saying how they were involved.  More information would put the spy into the proceedings.)

Get thinking like an 18th century noble, and it makes sense that when Moses saw one of the Gaspee Commissioners who then told Gage that they had not found Brown involved, that Gage released Brown from jail, and decided to forget Gaspee and make a deal on the charge involving the flour-running to the American forces.  After all, it would be embarrassing to say to the Commissioner that the military knew more in 1772 than it told the Commission.

On my "to do" list is to someday pour thought the voluminous correspondence of Gage and Montague that exists at sundry places, to see if we find some reference to this matter.

Webmaster Addendum:
Taken from A Quaker Martyr and Other Stories, Booklet presented c1930 by the Old Stone Bank, Providence, RI, pp22-31. (Author Unknown).  Quotations are presumably taken from Moses Brown's retelling of the episode.

Charles Rappleye in his book Sons of Providence:  The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2006), also gives an excellent retelling of Moses Brown's mission to rescue John Brown once John had been imprisoned in Boston.
A Remarkable Journey

The time of the "Journey" was around April 26th, 1775, therefore much water had flowed by Namquit Point since that amazing dawn of June 10th, 1772, when the King's armed schooner "Gaspee" burned to the water's edge and then blew up.

In all the three years since that event, it is said, although Governor Wanton had promptly offered a reward of $500.00 for the apprehension of the men who had done the deed, and although the King of England had offered $5,000.00 for the apprehension of the leader of the expedition and $2,500.00 for any one of the "common offenders, there was none within the limits of our State poor enough to be bribed, mean enough to be bought, or cowardly enough to be frightened into a betrayal of the brave men who struck the first blow in the great struggle for freedom which had to be fought."

After so long a time, therefore, without detection by his Majesty's servants, John Brown, middle-aged by now, rolling along in one of the Brown-owned vessels carrying flour to Providence, might well have had other matters in mind than that of his own personal safety on this 22nd day of April, 1775.

There had been other incidents in Rhode Island in these three, years, of course. In the February following the burning of the "Gaspee,' three hundred pounds of good tea had been burned in Market Square.  Moses Brown had nothing to do with the destruction of the tea—he simply vowed never again to taste the herb, a vow he kept for all the remaining sixty years of his life.

In the April following the tea-burning there was a general Muster of Militia and it was noted that Providence County had two thousand Infantry and a Troop of Horse under arms, while Kent County had nearly fifteen hundred. Down in East Greenwich a lame Quaker and his friends had drilled, all the winter of 1774-75, in
an independent company of soldiers called "The Kentish Guards."

Of course, what might well have been uppermost in John Brown's mind on this particular April day was the amazing news of the Battle of Concord and Lexington, which had been fought only three days before. All the Colonists must have been thinking of this, and details and incidents of the battle must have been on every tongue. 'Tis fairly certain, therefore, that when his Majesty's ship, the "Rose," held up the Brown vessel and the "Rose's" master, Capt. James Wallace, arrested John Brown and hurried him off to Boston on a well-grounded suspicion that he had taken part in the destruction of the "Gaspee," his prisoner must have been both surprised and considerably annoyed. For John Brown, although he is said to have had the "courage of a Corsair," had also a fund of good solid sense and disquieting thoughts may well have entered his mind. For instance, under the law he had been guilty of "piracy," those three years back, and the penalty for that offense was dire. Also, he may have reflected ruefully that, at this particular time with the blood of three hundred comrades still dyeing the roadsides into Boston, and the Americans within the last two days stretching their ragged but rugged lines all the way down from the Mystic River on the north, to Dorchester on the south, hemming General Gage's Army into Boston on the entire land side the British were liable to be particularly sore. He may well have quaked, although he must have known that the news of his capture would stir the countryside.

How the news of his disaster first reached his brother Moses, and how it came about that it was Moses—Moses, the youngest brother; Moses, the Quaker of a year, whose principles forbade his lifting his hand against the enemy—who set out to his rescue is not recorded. Where was Nicholas in this emergency? What did Nicholas believe? Joseph Brown knew about the burning of the King's ship—he had been "among those present." Therefore Joseph had good reason not to want to put his head into the British lion's mouth.  But Joseph may not have told his brother Moses all that he knew of the situation.

Possibly, because John and Moses were the nearest in age, there was an unusual bond between them, but perhaps the most important reason why Moses should be the emissary appears to be that Moses did truly believe that John had not been a party to the act for which he was arrested.

When it was decided that Moses should go to John's rescue, despite his brother's peril, he did not start without making careful preparation. First, he collected nineteen letters from notable people to aid him in getting through the British lines. From whom were these letters obtained? From none of the rebel citizens, surely. Perhaps Moses, the man of peace, numbered friends on both sides and so obtained important signatures that would carry weight with the King's servants in Boston.

At any rate, armed with these nineteen letters, on horseback and alone, Moses Brown, on or about April 26, 1775, set out on a journey so remarkable. that it is most unfortunate that complete record of every hour of it is not at band.

History tells us that, after the battle, Colonists from all parts of New England streamed along the roads, leading into the village of Cambridge, until, within four or five days, 16,000 of them were encamped half-starved, shivering through the cold nights without blankets. Moses Brown saw these men in camp while attending to the formalities necessary in obtaining a pass through our lines. Rough, ungainly men many of these patriots were, "round-shouldered and stiff from labor. Perhaps in ill-fitting old military uniforms of blue turned back with red, but most of them in smocks as they had come from the fields. . . Some with great wigs that had once been white, some in their own hair, with every kind of hat or fur cap, every variety of old musket or shot gun; without or discipline, laughing and talking with their leaders, welcoming to their ranks students from New Haven, or clerks from country-stores."

It was these unkempt patriots, using a variety of ammunition including half-bullets and old nails, who took such terrible toll on the British soldiers at Bunker Hill in less than two months from that day, as they aimed at the belts of the "Redcoats." 

When Moses Brown passed successfully through the British lines, as he did, with his nineteen letters, he was the first man to enter the city of Boston after the Battle of Concord and Lexington. A descendant of the Brown family has written that it has long been "a difficult question what ways and means such a good man could, have used to rescue his brother, when John was the very man, the exact fugitive from justice that the English had been searching for for three years with great vigilance and cost." Nine months before he died (and he lived to be ninety-eight years old) he wrote to a friend a letter concerning it. He recalled in this letter how the British were in Boston and the Americans besieging that city. He said that he passed through the lines successfully with his letters and that the first man he encountered was a British sentinel. The soldier did not hear him approach and did not see him until he was right upon him. He turned upon the gentle Quaker and gave him such a "blast" as he had never before received. But there was something in that earnest face before him which must have reassured the sentinel. No doubt he was impressed that here was no ordinary intruder. Perhaps the famous letters carried weight. At any rate, he calmed down and escorted Moses through scenes in marked contrast to the undisciplined camp he had just left—through companies of disciplined soldiers who wore scarlet coats and white knee-breeches and who carried muskets whose barrels fairly shone, until he came to the headquarters of General Gage. Then he was taken to Vice-Admiral Graves, to Chief-Justice Peter Oliver, and, finally, to "Brother John" himself.

Judge Oliver, who had been instructed by his Majesty to find out who burnt the "Gaspee," was puzzled. He said to Moses: "It is true there were named before the Court five John Browns, some white, some black, but no person was so identified as to enable the Court to issue any process, and, on considering the subject, we were united in judgment that nothing further could be done, and I will speak to the Admiral if you wish it." And, at hisbrequest, the Admiral set "Brother John" at liberty.

In the letter to his friend, Moses Brown made a statement which, considering the character of the man, should be regarded as testimony of all weight. The statement was : "It happened well for me and John that I knew nothing of his being concerned in the burning of the `Gaspee,' or that he was charged with it."

History says that it was his "earnest entreaty in behalf of 'Brother John,' his perfect certainty that John had no connection whatever with the affair, that brought about his rescue."

The two brothers prepared now to return to Providence. With but one horse, the one on which Moses had ridden to Boston, it was decided that as John was so much bigger he should sit in front while Moses rode behind. And in this way the two brothers returned home.

On their arrival in Providence—and one wonders at what hour—they were received with "joy beyond expression."

They were at once called before the General Assembly to relate all that they had seen and heard. Stephen Hopkins, then a Member of Congress, was among those present. After a spirited discussion at that sitting, the Assembly voted to raise a regiment of five hundred men and to place General Greene and General Varnum at the head of it.

And by and by, after weary years, the War was over and the "Four Brothers" free to lead each in his own way, a life which to this day makes honorable impress on our State of Rhode Island and these "Plantations."
Webmaster Addendum.

From the Brown Family Genealogical Society - Vol 25, Issue 2 (December 1996)  Page 17.> (Stale link as of 2005)
Genealogical Background; John Brown of Providence Rl was the son of Capt. James Brown (Elder James3 John2 Chacf). John Brown was one of the famous "four brothers," merchants in Providence and founders and patrons of Brown University. His father James was born at Providence 22Mar1698, died there 26Apr1739 and married at Providence, 21Dec1722, Hope (POWER) Brown who was born 4Jan1702, died 8June1792, daughter of Nicholas and Mercy (Tillinghast) Power. "In a deed, drawn in 1738, Capt. James Brown mentioned his sisters Ann (wife of Samuel Comstock) and Mary, his father James, and his brother Jeremiah. Their children born at Providence were; i. James Brown,5 b. 12Feb1724; d. unm. at York, Va., 15Feb1750. ii. Nicholas Brown, b. 28July1729; m. (1) 2 May 1762 Rhoda (JENKS) Brown; m. (2) 9Sept1785 Avis (BINNEY) Brown.
iii. Mary (BROWN) Vanderlight, b. in 1731; m. John Vanderlight. iv. Hon. Joseph Brown, b. 3Dec1733; d. 3Dec1785; m. 30Sept1759 Elizabeth (POWER) Brown. He was a patriot in the Revolution and filled both town and State offices. v. John Brown (subject of this story), b. 27Jan1736; m. 27Nov1760 Sarah (SMITH) Brown. vi. Moses Brown, b. 12Sept1738; m. (1) Uan1764 his first cousin, Anna6 (BROWN) Brown (27, iv), b. 28Nov1744, daughter of Obadiah4 Brown and Mary (HARRIS) Brown; m. (2) 4Mar1779 Mary (OLNEY) Brown; m. (3) 2May1799 Phebe (LOCKWOOD) Brown.
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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 2001    Last Revised 8/2013    JohnBrownDefense.htm