J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

“Virginia Billy” Comes of Age

The Princetonians profile of William Burnet Brown is a wonderful model of wringing a character study out of limited evidence.

Brown left almost no trace on the records of what became Princeton University except in the account books, but James McLachlan and his editorial team still created this portrait of a young man:
William entered the College’s grammar school on September 24, 1755. There he bought copies of the Newark Grammar, Isaac Watts’s Psalms, a Latin Erasmus, Guthrie’s translation of Cicero, and other books.

In the six months between his entrance and March 24, 1756, he ran up one of the highest bills of any student on whom President [Aaron] Burr kept records—a total of £41.4s.10d., at a time when the annual salary of a college tutor was £40. Between the time Browne arrived in Newark and the time he left Princeton he spent money on items such as the following: £1.2s. for having shirts made; £2 for special tutoring by John Ewing (A.B. 1754); £4.7s.1d. for having special closets and shelves built into his room; £3.16s for furnishing his room; and £2.4s. for painting his room.

His largest expenditure was for a horse, which he bought for £12.1s. on March 21, 1756. On the same day he paid £4.2s. for a saddle and bridle and £2.5s. for thirty bushels of oats. The horse was costly to keep, especially on February 22, 1757, when President Burr had to pay £4.16s.6d. “for redeeming his Mare yt he [Browne] had foolishly exchang’d.”

The date on which Browne entered the College is unknown, but that he entered it is certain, for he bought College texts and was charged for “tuition” rather than “schooling.” On May 26, 1757, President Burr recorded that Browne was “sent to Boston, not returned.” His last steward’s bill was rendered as of June 29, 1757.
William Burnet Brown was eighteen years old when he returned to Salem, Massachusetts. Two of his brothers and a sister had died the year before, and other siblings would die in the next few years.

As the eldest son, when Brown came of age, he inherited a large amount of property from his late mother. Then his father died in 1763, and Brown’s holdings grew even bigger. In addition to the estate on Folly Hill in Essex County, he owned other property there as well as real estate in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York. He wasn’t tethered to any one British colony.

While in New York in 1764, Brown married Judith Walker Carter. She was from the Virginia Carters, an extended family that included some of the richest planters in North America. For a couple of years they lived in Salem, probably in the old mansion Brown had inherited from his father (shown above before it was taken down in the 1910s). They started having children.

Sometime in those years Judith’s sister Maria visited her, and a friend, Maria Beverley, wrote to her with unabashed gossip about marriages within their circle in Virginia. Beverley added:
But can you hear of so Vast many of our Sex about to change their Estate, without enlisting yourself in this Number? I cannot think the young gentlemen of New England so Vastly depraved in their way of thinking as not to have made you many applications of that sort. I remember your Grandmother told me you had a great Variety of Suitors.
Judith’s sister Maria eventually married a man from back home.

Brown served as a warden of Salem’s Anglican church in 1766 and 1767, but already his neighbors were calling him “Virginia Billy.” And already he was selling off his New England real estate.

TOMORROW: The big move.

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