America entered the 19th century as a nation burdened with debt but seeking to become a global power. At the heart of that transformation was the creation of mercantile banks, such as the founding of Brown Brothers in 1818. Learning about the family banking history provided a unique two-century window into the broader economic history of our nation. Without financial regulation, the lucrative commodities such as cotton, tobacco, and linen drove speculation and led to the Panic of 1837. Brown Brothers narrowly survived those bank runs but prevailed through successive economic downturns and finally thrived by adapting to an ever-changing business landscape and making prescient decisions.
At the end of WWII, Brown Brothers Harriman stood alone as the only commercial bank in the United States organized as a private, unlimited liability partnership. Philanthropy was a passion of the partners, who were early benefactors of Union Theological Seminary and founders of the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. Some family institutions don’t survive past the third generation due to internal challenges, such as succession, retirement, death, and political disagreements. However, the Brown family held fast in succeeding generations by focusing on the advantages of partnership, long-term perspective, and an ethic of stewardship that nurtured their relationships and strengthened their business.
Mary Elizabeth Adams Brown, wife of the banking partner John Crosby Brown, tapped into the exceptional reach of the Brown firm to gather musical instruments from around the world and donate them to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A mother of six, she inadvertently embarked upon this quest that became her life’s work. Through perseverance and force of will, Mary acquired and donated 3,600 of the 5,000 musical instruments now exhibited at the Museum, which is considered the oldest and most comprehensive collection in the world. We had the great privilege of viewing that permanent collection our first evening in New York.
My older son described our family reunion: “Growing up with only knowledge of my Friess family roots, the unveiling of the intricacies of my Brown family history was quite frankly shocking and delightful. I met so many relatives I had not previously known existed and heard stories of their accomplishments I found inspiring!” My older daughter's favorite part was viewing a pictoral record of the family’s Victorian lace wedding veil, first worn by Mary Elizabeth Adams in 1864, then by my grandmother in 1933, by my mother in 1963, by me in 2003, and by many other descendents in-betweeen.
From a United States senator to a New York governor, to preserving musical instruments and creating mercantile banks, remarkable history unfolded for us last weekend, creating a mosaic of family stories. I hope these stories serve as a source of resolve for all of us to make family a priority. We are the generation that must build on healthy family legacies or redeem and restore unhealthy family histories. JH Classical Academy is honored to partner with families and speak virtue and character into the lives of your children for their sake, and for the sake of generations not yet born.