“Now over on your left you can see a reproduction of John Brown’s carriage. He would use this on longer trips.” The docent leaned against one of the wheels. It was a good head taller than he was. I estimated that I beat its diameter by only an inch or two. “It is much larger than carriages of its type, partially due to Brown’s obesity in his later years and partially due to his desire to impress.” John Brown and Isaac Royall, I thought to myself. Two “nouveau riche” peas in a pod.
The curious thing, at least from a contemporary perspective, is the desire of wealthy, “self-made” men like Brown and Royall for perceived legitimacy as old money Tories. As the president of the Royall House Society noted during a phone interview I had with him last month, this is very much in opposition to the current tendency of prominant and wealthy individuals to appear as “regular guy-ish” as possible. While the growth of invisible capital — and with it, social mobility — was very much on the ascendent aristocracy was still very much an entity to which one aspired to emulate. Foucault would term this “residual;” just because mercantilism and commerce was beginning to determine societal placement the trappings of pomp and circumstance were still fresh in peoples’ minds.
The multi-storied house, much like the carriage-cum-SUV, were larger than life. The grounds, a mere portion of what they would have been in Brown’s time, sprawled acre upon acre. The painted China and lacquered jade boxes provided evidence of extensive far east travel and acquisition of exotic, “Oriental” treasure. All of it seemed to say look at me. Look at what I have done. Look at what I have accomplished. Look at how much I have traded. I am as good as any of them.
These are just the exterior treasures found in the Brown Mansion. I tried to get a picture of Brown’s SUV carriage/Freudian overcompensation-mobile — pardon the anachronistic reference to Freud — but I didn’t manage to snap it before the docent caught me. Here’s an attempt at taking the picture from the outside:
All this pomp, circumstance and capitalist compensation/conspicuous consumption was facilitated in part by the Triangle Trade. As for whether slaves were actually kept in house? Well . . . no excavation akin to the one at the Royall House has been conducted to date, and I have yet to properly track down the scholars who did manage to unearth the bits of the Brown slavery legacy we do have. All I can say is that on the upper floor lived “servants,” in the words of the docent. NB: To date in my research, the words “servant” and “slave” seemed to have been used almost interchangeably in New England. I found material evidence of this in Newport, in fact.
So. We have Royall-like pomp and circumstance in the Brown House. We also have a profound emphasis on size. I wonder — perhaps this “bigger is better” attitude is reflected in the ultimate patriot leanings of John Brown? A massively scaled vehicle does surely seem . . . American.