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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, January 04, 2016

Biographical Note--
A New Year, A New Start: The Partnership of Perkins & Brown, January 1844

A great deal has been written or discussed passingly about John Brown's years as a businessman, much of it ranging from inaccuracy to gross distortion.   While Brown's business history is a theme that needs far more consideration and study, my own conclusion is that even if he was not a great businessman, certainly he was not any worse than many of his contemporaries.  The conventional narrative of his business life rarely if ever acknowledges the challenges that Brown and his others of his time faced.  Certainly, the standards of the US in the antebellum era were not like those of today's business world.  For instance, there were no limited liability corporations protecting the personal assets of business people; nor were there other economic safety nets available in the 1830s and '40s that are available today.

From a letter in 1826 to a business associate--
possibly Brown's earliest extant signature
Furthermore, there was not even a uniform monetary system in the nation after 1836, since the national bank had been shut down by President Andrew Jackson, who had all but declared war on the bank.  Even before its demise, Jackson's assaults had brought a reactionary response from the bank's leadership that made it more difficult for businessmen to acquire funds--circumstances Brown himself referred to as "General Jackson darkness."   After the President finally vetoed the bill that would have renewed the bank's charter, it completely expired in 1836, marking the beginning of a period of intensifying economic difficulties for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially those in "western" states like Ohio.  As I have pointed out repeatedly, it is for these reasons that the "John Brown bad businessman" fetish that is used by Brown's detractors is really just a straw man argument.  Based on the record taken in historical context, the evidence suggests he was far more unfortunate than he was a "bad businessman," mainly due to national and regional economic difficulties.

The Nadir

Biographically speaking, I tend to think that his work with "fine sheep and wool" in the later 1840s is probably easier to evaluate, as is also his earliest (and quite successful) business ventures in northwestern Pennsylvania from 1926-35.  The more difficult phase, at least for me, has been sorting through the information on Brown's activities between 1835 and 1844, when he engaged in numerous real estate and entrepreneurial ventures, all of which failed.

Bankrupt--a segment from John Brown's 1842
Bankruptcy appraisal, listing everything from
utensils to livestock to Bibles (Stutler Collection)
When the aftershock of the Panic of 1837 reached the western states, many businessmen fell prey.  Brown's failed ventures, largely based upon credit, were focused on commercial and private property.  This left him beset by lawsuits and entangling debts that ultimately brought him to bankruptcy in 1842.  The bitter destitution of business failure was not simply a wound to his pride, but nearly reduced his family to poverty.  The nadir of this bleak period was around 1843 when, as Brown later recalled, he could not keep proper clothing on all of his children. His family's embarrassment was so bad that they even stopped attending church for a season because not all of the Brown children had shoes.

The Upswing

However, in contrast to conventional presentations about his early life, Brown actually made a fairly strong comeback in the following decade. Certainly, the notion that dire failure in business pushed him toward abolition is nonsense.  Brown was always passionate about antislavery; but he had a family and many mouths to feed, and was hardly in a position to throw himself into antislavery work full time.  Throughout this period, whenever he was able, Brown assisted fugitives in flight from slavery, and here and there he had ideas of starting a school for blacks.  After 1840 he also began to contemplate a means of leading off enslaved people in large numbers by using the Appalachian mountain system that extended into the South.  But this plan existed in his thinking for a good many years before he actually attempted to either develop or implement it.  Second, Brown's objectives as a younger man were not the same as they were in his fifties.  His first sense of himself was as an antislavery tycoon--someone whose acquired wealth and prosperity could be applied to the antislavery effort.  In fact, it was this hope that was probably revivified when his fortunes turned upward again in the mid-1840s and he regained a stable position by doing what he did best--livestock cultivation.

By January 1844, Brown had already begun to see the light of day after aligning himself with the prosperous Heman Oviatt of Richfield, Ohio. Oviatt had lost money in Brown's earlier land speculation, but he remained confident in Brown's integrity, and hired Brown to manage his farm and keep his vast flock of sheep at Richfield, Ohio.  Brown seized upon the opportunity, which also included the development of a productive tannery operation, another business in which he had excelled previously in Pennsylvania.  Quickly redeeming himself from economic shame, Brown was increasingly attentive to the care and breeding of quality livestock, especially the improvement of fine sheep. As he studied and experimented, Oviatt's flock began to prosper in productivity and reputation, as did Brown's own little flock, all of which must have proved more than a balm to his bruised hopes. He even began to travel to other counties and states, looking up various sheep farms to interview the wool-growers and study their flocks, often purchasing quality livestock for his partner or himself.   Unlike land speculation, Brown was standing on solid ground and working in a field, both literally and figuratively, where he had both talent and expertise.

"A Most Favorable Arrangement"

In late 1843, Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron, Ohio, contacted him with a proposition. Perkins had heard of his reputation and success and wanted Brown's expertise for his own farm and flocks.  For one so embarrassed and bankrupt two years before, this must have seemed like a promotion of biblical proportions to John Brown, an even greater reversal of his former misfortunes.  Perkins was far more prosperous than Oviatt, having inherited a share of his father's great fortune.  The senior Perkins was a founding leader of Akron, Ohio, and a successful banker and magnate who left his sons a good deal of wealth.  So Brown was undoubtedly elated when he received Perkins' proposition.  On January 11, 1844, Brown thus wrote to his namesake, describing his new partnership in enthusiastic detail:

I have lately entered into a copartnership with Simon Perkins Jr. of Akron with a view to carry on the Sheep business extensively. He is to furnish all the feed, & shelters for wintering as a set off against our taking all the care of the flock.  All other expenses we are to share equally & to divide the profits equally. This arrangement will reduce our cash rents at least $250, yearly & save our hiring help in Haying.
It was a sweet deal.  The Oviatt farmland in Richfield was still available to him for pasturing his sheep, but now Brown could move his family into a far nicer residence on the grounds of the Perkins land in Akron. As he described it further to John Junior:
. . . my family will go into a very good House belonging to Mr Perkins say from half a mile, to a mile, out of Akron. I think this is the most comfortable & the most favorable arrangement of my worldly concerns that I ever had, and calculated to afford us more leisure for improvement, by day, & by Night, than any other I do hope that God has enabled us to make it in mercy to us, & not that he should send leanness into our soul. 
He and his family had seen hard times, but notwithstanding his Calvinistic observation that the Almighty might yet "send leanness" again, Brown was expecting prosperity.  The Perkins arrangement not only put bread on Brown's table, but buttered it sweetly.  "Our time will all be at our own command except the care of the flock," he wrote.  "This I think will be considered no mean alliance for our family & I most earnestly hope they will have wisdom given to make the most of it."

A "Copartnership"

These words were written only two days after he had signed a "copartnership" agreement with Perkins, on January 9, 1844.  An examination of the agreement affirms that from the onset Brown had his own sheep distinct from Oviatt's flock, which itself is evidence that his determined comeback was already under way.  (In 1842, his bankruptcy report listed possession of only seven sheep and three lambs.)  Still, in the new arrangement with Perkins, Brown was to join the business "concern" of his flock with Perkins' flock, and thus to "share equally the gain or loss yearly."  For his part, Perkins furnished all the winter concerns for their sheep, providing "all the food and shelter that would be necessary" from December 1st until mid-April, when they could be returned to pasture.  In turn, Brown was to provide ongoing "care and attention of every description which the good of the flock may require"--meaning, he would wash the sheep, shear wool, and sack and ship the product to market.  Otherwise, any other expenses would be undertaken from the profits of their "copartnership."  Brown also agreed to do some secondary farming for Perkins, harvesting his turnip and potato crops, which the latter grew to fund the care of the sheep. 

Our House, is a Very, Very Nice House

As Brown mentioned to his son, the January 1844 agreement also allowed Brown to move Mary and the family into "the frame dwelling-house" on the Perkins farm, which was situated south of the Perkins mansion.  The family had moved in by April 1844, when the "copartnership" became active. As far as housing,  the agreement allowed the Browns access to yards (of which his growing and often mischievous sons took full advantage) and gardening on the grounds.  He was also granted "the privilege of getting wood for fuel" from Perkins' land.
The Brown residence in Akron, which
served as a golf club in the early 20th century
(Summit County Historical Society)

In turn, Brown paid $30 rent annually, which by one conversion chart would amount to only about $800 a year today.  Even if this is an underestimation, it is clear that the Browns were now quite comfortable, the arrangement actually giving the Browns opportunity to profit. To no surprise, Brown characteristically went hard at repaying his debts as a result of these fortunate circumstances.   In a letter to John Junior in June 1844, Brown further reported that he found the Perkins family to be "affable and kind" neighbors--and there was prosperity.  As he recounted, the first fruits of their "copartnership" had yielded nearly 600 lambs and nearly three thousand pounds of wool, which Brown himself brought to market at Lowell, Massachusetts.


What turned out to be key to their business agreement was the requirement that both men would "improve and increase" the flock "from time to time as the business will justify, and they may agree."  I believe it was this line that gave a mandate--in Brown's zealous mind--to continue his passionate investigation and experimentation of breeding and care for sheep.  One of his contributions was experimentation in order to relieve sheep from infestation by "bots and grubs," fly larvae in the heads of sheep, a blight that exacted a heavy toll upon the flock.   M. B. Bateman, the editor of the Ohio Cultivator, reported in 1845 that he had thus been approached by John Brown, who had already become known for the excellence of the Perkins-Brown flocks.  "Mr. Brown has made a large number of examinations and experiments in relation to this subject," Bateman wrote.  Brown had performed autopsies on dead sheep, or even killed sick sheep in order to examine the skull infestations; in some cases, Brown told him, there were as many as fifty "grubs" in the head of a single sheep. This affliction in flocks, Bateman explained, took place in warm climates or in the summer, when sheep could be seen huddling together, holding their noses close to the ground in an attempt to avoid infestation.  After trying various experiments, Bateman reported, Brown had devised an "effectual remedy for the evil"--a tobacco solution that he injected into the sheep's nostrils with a small syringe.  The antidote apparently killed the fly larvae without harming the sheep.    Brown subsequently wrote a detailed article for the Cultivator, explaining his experimentation and how he had devised his tobacco remedy, and advising his agrarian readers how to apply the same method to their own flocks.
"Bots and Grubs" Illustration in
John Brown's article in
The Ohio Cultivator (1845)

Equipped with his own native interest in livestock and an undoubted passion to excel, Brown thus took the contractual mandate for improvement to even greater lengths.  While it cannot be extensively documented here, an overview of his activities at this point will show that Brown continued his inclination to travel and observe other flocks, where he continued to procure sheep for breeding and improvement.  In turn, this honed his expertise and skills as a sheep farmer and wool aficionado, so that by the late 1840s he really had gained a reputation that went far beyond Ohio, distinguishing him as one of the leading experts in fine sheep and wool in the nation.  I've addressed this somewhat in John Brown--The Cost of Freedom, but it bears mentioning here because of the skewed portrayal of Brown as an utter business failure.  Brown was becoming renowned for his expertise in sheep and wool, and now he could walk with his head held high, whereas only a few years before he was shamed and broken by his circumstances. 

A New Challenge

Equally important, Brown's familiarity with the landscape of sheep and wool production in the 1840s ultimately led him to study the system that prevailed in the sheep and wool industry.  He had effectively mastered the craft of breeding sheep and wool production.  But this was not enough for Brown, who in visiting many sheep farms had also become increasingly aware of both their flaws as well as their difficulties in the marketplace.  As to flaws, Brown was bothered by the fact that many wool growers were not above cheating the manufacturers, who purchased wools by weight.  As Brown observed, the growers were so frustrated by the underpricing of their wools by New England manufacturers that they often resorted to cheating them by loading their wool sacks with dirt and debris in order to get more pennies to the pound.  This disturbed every bone in John Brown's ethical frame.  At the same time, as the perennial defender of the underdog, he was also increasingly irritated by the abuse of the growers by the New England capitalists.  Clearly, they were being taken advantage of by the manufacturers, chiefly in that the latter retained the right to set the prices and pay out what they wanted.
The P&B Circular, March 1846

In defense of the woolgrowers, Brown conceived of creating a business to mediate the market exchange between farmers and manufacturers.  With the undoubted approval of Perkins, Brown thus entered into a venture, extending their "copartnership" into a new endeavor.  In March 1846, a "circular" was issued bearing the names of Simon Perkins and John Brown, which was sent out to a long list of woolgrowers .  The circular announced a new "Commission Wool House at Springfield, Massachusetts."  The Perkins & Brown Commission operation (henceforth P&B) promised potential clients that wools would be classed and offered for sale by P&B to different manufacturers at the best possible price.

The new P&B commission house was a heady venture, but it was doubtless based upon Brown's professional self-assurance, which he summed up in the circular as "experience in the business, and extensive acquaintance with the Eastern Manufacturers and Wool Dealers."  Nor was Brown lying, since he knew the wool business well, and likewise had become well acquainted with many of the manufacturers and dealers in the northeast. On the other hand, his practical, common sense approach to business was unequal to the kind of business maneuvering and market manipulation that was typical of the New England capitalists. Certainly, the latter were hardly going to lose their advantage in the marketplace, nor yield their profit margin to an upstart firm from Ohio run by a famously idealistic but naive entrepreneur.

From a Perkins & Brown Letter in Brown's own hand
The Persistent Partnership

As the saying goes, the rest of the story is history.  Yet it is a history that often has been distorted with the use of one or two anecdotes about Brown going overseas and returning from England in defeat.  Such treatment hardly does justice to the real story behind P&B's ultimate failure.   Again, readers may check out my book, John Brown--The Cost of Freedom, in which I sketch the kinds of issues that ultimately proved the undoing of Brown's visionary effort on behalf of the wool growers.  As I also point out, it is interesting that it took many years before the woolgrowers of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and western Virginia were themselves prepared to take on the type of effort that Brown wanted for them in the 1840s.  As in the matter of "race relations," Brown likewise was ahead of his time in regard to the organization of the woolgrowers.

As far as his "copartnership" with Simon Perkins Jr., the end of P&B in Springfield did not at all entail the end of their arrangement.   Indeed, their "copartnership" apparently continued until 1854, and Brown kept his family in Akron throughout this time, even while he was battling business lawsuits and tying up the wearisome loose ends that remained after P&B closed in 1849.   Brown remained an important associate to Perkins, who neither blamed nor otherwise attributed the burden of P&B's demise to him.

On April 12, 1850, Brown wrote to John Junior after a meeting with Perkins only days before in southwestern Pennsylvania.  The meeting was apparently scheduled to discuss the continuation of their "copartnership," which seems to have been renewed annually every April 15.  Brown was delighted with the outcome of the meeting, especially in light of the failure of P&B.   He thus assured his son that Perkins had
. . . met a full history of our difficulties, & probable losses without a frown on his countenance, or one syllable of reflection, but on the contrary with words of comfort, & encouragement.  He is wholly averse to any separation of our business or interests, & gave me the fullest assurance of his undiminished confidence & personal regard.  He expresses a strong desire to have our flock of sheep remain undivided to become the joint possession of our families when we have gone off the Stage.  Such a meeting I had not dared to expect, & I most heartily wish each of my family could have shared in the comfort of it.  Mr Perkins has in this whole business from first to last set an example worthy of a Philosopher, or of a Christian. 
Early 20th century sketch of one of
P&B's warehouses in Springfield
That Perkins took such a position perhaps reflects two aspects: first, he was aware that Brown had taken on a Herculean challenge in trying to wrest control of pricing from the powerful and organized manufacturers of New England.  He had gone so far as to seek markets in Europe, and unfortunately found manufacturers there were just as determined to have their way at the expense of the woolgrowers.  Perkins himself could not have done any better, and Brown's integrity counterbalanced any misjudgments or errors he may also have committed.   By all accounts Perkins seemed far more intent on keeping Brown in Akron.

Secondly, Perkins himself was far less competent a businessman than was Brown.   Even if P&B had failed because of business ineptitude (as many narrators presume), this actually would have reflected more so on Perkins, who was the controlling partner in the effort.  After all, the real issues behind P&B's demise were the contravening maneuvers of the manufacturers, as well as the lack of solidarity and patience among the woolgrowers themselves.  In either case, Perkins evidently offered no assistance or wisdom to his partner, who was left to handle everything by himself.   In fact, Perkins was the weaker link in the operation except, of course, that he had the money.

Quite to the contrary of the "John Brown failed businessman" narrative, it is notable that Perkins was "wholly averse" to any idea of parting ways with him.  In fact, their "copartnership" continued four more years, and only seems to have come to an end because Perkins lost money in an entirely unrelated scheme, in which Brown had no part.   It seems that Perkins went broke in a railroad venture and had to be bailed out by his brothers, or else he might even have lost his estate in Akron.

Finishing Up

As to Brown, he did not finish a broken, discouraged, and failed businessman in 1854 as he had been in 1842.  While he did not finish the Perkins and Brown "copartnership" in a highly profitable manner, his overall losses were disappointing.  Yet they were not personal and financial tragedies, and he was able to move forward.  He remained in Ohio for another year, working rented farmland and tending his flocks.  Brown, his wife Mary, and their younger children finally relocated to the Adirondacks in May 1855, moving into a small farmhouse that he had built for himself.  In 1855, Brown was not rich, but neither was he broke.  As the late Ed Cotter, the late supervisor of the John Brown farm in Lake Placid, N.Y., once pointed out to me, although Brown had limited cash (as did many others), he was a property owner with both fields and flocks.  (His property in Essex County had been paid off by a joint effort of antislavery friends as a gesture of appreciation for his militant efforts in Kansas.)  At the peak of P&B's run, Brown and his family had known something of a bourgeois life while in Springfield, during which time he was no stranger to a diamond studded lapel pin or a walking stick.  But this was not John Brown's style, being rather a man of simple fabric, livestock, and scripture.   At any rate, it was at the point of his settling in the Adirondacks in 1855 that the call to Kansas came, and with it the story of the businessman and farmer ended, and the legendary story of the fighting abolitionist commenced.

In the end, John Brown became dependent upon antislavery tycoons like Gerrit Smith, George L. Stearns, and Thaddeus Hyatt--devout and prosperous men who personified the kind of profile that he once had hoped to attain for himself.   

While the story of John Brown the businessman is of little interest to most people, at least it is important to remember that for most of his life, he had hoped to cut out an antislavery niche on the basis of financial success.  In the end, however, Brown found his place as an antislavery soldier and freedom fighter, ironically becoming quite dependent upon antislavery tycoons like Gerrit Smith, George L. Stearns, and Thaddeus Hyatt--devout and prosperous men who personified the kind of profile that he once had hoped to attain for himself.

Simon Perkins Jr.
(in 1870)
Interestingly, too, his warm friend and partner, Simon Perkins Jr., seems to have been quite indifferent toward Brown's politics.  By his own admission, their correspondence was limited to their business history, and there is not a shred of evidence that Perkins ever supported Brown after he had transitioned into abolition militancy.   Perkins was perhaps a moderate antislavery man,  but he was no Gerrit Smith.  Being typically conservative, Perkins was generally indifferent to the real plight of the enslaved African, nor was he evidently willing to support his friend in trying to overthrow the hideous system of chattel slavery.   Later in the 19th century, Perkins took advantage of waning years and memories to shift the blame onto his late partner for the failure of P&B, which really was something of a betrayal.  Perkins was even less kind to Brown's legacy as an antislavery figure.  "I consider him and the men that helped him [in his Harper's Ferry raid] the biggest set of fools in the world," he told F.B. Sanborn in May 1878.

By then, too, Simon Perkins Jr. had also betrayed his flocks.  It seems that keeping sheep was no longer profitable.

L DeCaro Jr.

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