Biographer Wins Washington Prize for Book on Slave Trade

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Charles Rappleye, who was once an investigative journalist, has won the third annual $50,000 George Washington Book Prize for his biography "Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution." It's the story of John and Moses Brown, brothers who founded Brown University but were dramatically opposed to each other on the business of slavery. It was a system that Rappleye describes in his book as "the most hazardous and the most lucrative business of the time."

The book, which sheds light on how controversial slavery was in this country long before the Civil War, covers 100 years, from the birth in 1736 of John Brown, a robber baron who ran slave ships from Providence, R.I., to the 1836 death of Moses, the younger brother, who with slave blood on his hands became an abolitionist.

"The book opens with the family's first venture in the trade, staged by patriarch James Brown the year John was born," the introduction to the book says. "Thirty years later, the brothers establish a personal stake in the trade when they stage their own voyage to Africa. It results in a human and financial disaster: after a journey attended by disease and shipboard rebellion, more than half the slaves perish, an ordeal illuminated by detailed notes from the captain's log."

It's after this experience that the brothers take their separate paths on the issue.

"It's a fascinating story," Rappleye said in an interview from the grounds of Mount Vernon, where he was awarded the prize at a black-tie dinner yesterday."You have two brothers who share the same background and end up on the opposite sides of the slavery issue during the American Revolution. I was interested in what drove them apart and what kept them together despite the dispute on slavery."

The George Washington Book Prize, created in 2005 and sponsored by Washington College, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, honors "books that contribute fresh insights to that national conversation about the years the country was founded." The award, with its $50,000 literary prize, is one of the most generous in the United States, organizers say.

Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, which administers the prize, said in a statement, " 'Sons of Providence' tells a tale few Americans know -- yet one that, with its sibling rivalries and ancestral burdens, seems almost Shakespearean."

James Rees, executive director of George Washington's Mount Vernon, the organization that owns and manages Mount Vernon, said yesterday in an interview, " 'Sons of Providence' was a very compelling story on both the personal level, because it was the conflict between two brothers, and on the national level, because it was the conflict between those who believe in slavery and those who do not."

Rappleye, 51, who lives in Los Angeles, said he began working on the book about three years ago after he lost his job as a journalist at the LA Weekly, where he was an editor and a staff writer. "I was fired by the LA Weekly when a new regime at the paper came in," he said. "They cleaned house and I went out the door." He had wanted to write about the Brown brothers for some time and the firing gave him time.

Rappleye said he was perfectly surprised by the prize. "I think that is to their credit," he said. "I'm not a well-known author. There were a lot of big names in the field and they sifted through it and found my book."

The other finalists for the prize were Catherine Allgor for "A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation" and Francois Furstenberg for "In the Name of the Father: Washington's Legacy, Slavery and the Making of a Nation."

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