Fountain Brown (1806?–1865?)
Fountain Brown was a Methodist preacher who was the first person to be charged and found guilty of violating the Emancipation Proclamation. Charged with having sold several of his slaves back into slavery after they had in fact been freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s order, Brown found himself at the center of a case that reflected the changes that came with the war. For a brief time, it was a celebrated legal matter leading to an active postwar effort to secure a pardon for the physically ailing Brown.
Little is known about Fountain Brown’s early years. He is thought to have been born in 1806 or 1807, but the location is unknown. A one-time resident of Tennessee, he had been moved by church leaders from the Tennessee Conference, where he had begun his preaching career, to the Arkansas Group in 1830, shortly before the territory was granted statehood. Well respected for his preaching and singing skills, he was sent to Arkansas a year ahead of a larger contingent in the expectation that he would lay the groundwork for the next wave and begin to cultivate the new frontier. He settled in the area that became Flat Bayou, a small village located about twelve miles northeast of Pine Bluff (Jefferson County); he received his ministerial credentials on September 18, 1832. Brown undertook a traveling ministry, charming the newly arriving settlers and spreading the gospel in a way that earned him a reputation as a popular and successful preacher. He served as both a circuit preacher and a presiding elder.
Brown was involved in one small legal controversy concerning sales of a patented “Newsom’s Vegetable Tonic” in the mid-1850s. The trusting preacher bought, on credit, the exclusive territorial rights to sell the medicine. He was found liable when payment for the note was due even though the medicine was not, in fact, patented. The case ultimately turned in part on some legal niceties, but Brown eventually paid back the money.
Brown owned a working farm in addition to his preaching responsibilities. According to the 1860 census, Brown owned a farm large enough to justify the ownership of sixteen field slaves and nine slave houses. That same census also noted that he was a widower. He remarried, but the names of both wives have been lost to history.
While the onset of the Civil War caused many changes in the South, the war did not have much impact on Arkansas in the early stages. Brown continued to farm and preach but took no active part in the ongoing conflict. With the Confederate government still in control, he still retained ownership of his slaves. However, things changed in September 1863 when the Union army captured Little Rock (Pulaski County) and then sent a force to Pine Bluff. The area in which Brown lived was not only under Union control but was included in the area specified in the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation and reaffirmed by the official proclamation issued on January 1, 1863. Recognizing the impact of all of this, Brown reportedly told his slaves that they were no longer his property and were free to go.
Despite this apparent recognition, in November 1863, he nevertheless sold some of his former slaves to a white man, one Mr. McAfee, who had approached Brown about a possible deal. It is not certain how many slaves were sold, but the charges on which the prosecution was based cited eight specific individuals—two adult slaves and their six children—as the ones who had been illegally sold.
Brown confessed to the Union soldier on Christmas Eve of 1863 and was quickly arrested. There is every indication that, had the conscience-stricken preacher not himself alerted the military authorities to his actions, there would have been no legal case. His trial before a military commission, sitting in Pine Bluff, began on January 6, 1864. During the three-day trial, Brown faced two charges: kidnapping free citizens inside lines occupied by the army and sending them outside the army-occupied territory, and selling back into slavery citizens who had been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Testimony was taken from military officers, neighbors of Brown, and (in a highly unusual act to which the defense attorneys objected) some of Brown’s former slaves. The facts were straightforward, and Brown himself did not testify on his own behalf. The commission found Brown guilty on both counts and sentenced him to five years in a military prison. The commission’s judgment was submitted to the Union army headquarters in Little Rock, where it was upheld, and then forwarded to the president for further action. In the meantime, in February, Brown had taken an oath of loyalty to the Union as part of Lincoln’s recently announced amnesty program.
While his case moved though the military bureaucracy, Brown waited in jail, but sympathetic local citizens organized a petition drive calling for his release. In April, he was released on bail, although he was not allowed to travel outside of the lines of Union army control. A second petition, calling for Brown to be pardoned, was also circulated. This petition appeared to have the support of Colonel Powell Clayton, the commander of the region’s Union forces.
Brown’s case became something of a symbol and cause célèbre. Lincoln referred the case to judge Advocate General Joseph Holt, who upheld the commission’s decision. While it appears that Lincoln may have given the file a personal review as well, in the end he accepted Holt’s recommendation. Subsequent appeals, often with new twists on the previously accepted facts, were undertaken, but the conviction was upheld, with Lincoln and Holt discussing it a final time only a month and half before the president was assassinated. Brown was sent back to jail.
After the final determination concerning the conviction, Brown’s supporters sought a pardon, sending several petitions to President Andrew Johnson. With the petitions offering new information based on research produced by Brown’s son-in-law, J. P. McGaughey, and containing hundreds of signatures, they painted a compelling case. However, President Johnson was not receptive. At the same time, another campaign to secure his release had merged with the army’s own efforts to release a number of military prisoners, and in mid-December 1865, Brown was among fifteen military prisoners released from the Jefferson City, Missouri, prison in which he had most recently been confined.
His newfound freedom was short-lived, as he became ill on the trip down first the Missouri River and then the Mississippi River, so that by the time his wife arrived in Pine Bluff to meet him, Brown was dead. The site of his burial is unknown.
For additional information:
Jewell, Horace. History of Methodism in Arkansas. Little Rock: Press Printing Co., 1892. Online at http://archive.org/details/historyofmethodi00jewe (accessed September 10, 2020).
McGaughey, J. P. “Fountain Brown.” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly 7, no. 2 (1977): 32–35.
Westwood, Howard C. “The Reverend Fountain Brown: Alleged Violator of the Emancipation Proclamation.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 49 (Summer 1990): 107–123.
William H. Pruden III
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