Alexander Brown, according to one contemporary, was one of “the royal merchants of America, as the Medici of old were of Italy.”
It was an apt comparison. Like the Medicis, Alexander had a genius for exploiting opportunities in global markets and an intimate knowledge of the international politics that shaped those markets. With this information, one writer put it, he was able to quickly “form a judgment, make a decision, and then back it to the limit of safety.”
Indeed, Alexander possessed courage, along with a sixth sense for commercial danger; he was perfectly willing to cancel a shipment without warning if he felt uneasy. As a trader, he also knew that his reputation was both everything and all that he had, which is why he refused to deal with people he did not trust and was unusually loyal to those he did.
Although he was a pragmatist at heart, Alexander also knew when to stand on principle.
When Maryland passed a law requiring importers to purchase a license for selling their goods, he refused, recognizing it as a backdoor tax on imports that only the federal government had the right to levy under the U.S. Constitution. He was promptly indicted along with George, John, and James Brown. Alexander and his sons sued, taking their case to the United States Supreme Court, which in 1827 decided in their favor. The decision prevented what otherwise could have been an expensive precedent not only for the Browns but also for other mercantile houses engaged in transatlantic trade.
The qualities that enables Alexander’s success—ingenuity, attention to clients, personal integrity, and a concern for reputation – left an indelible imprint on Brown Brothers, helping to establish the firm as responsible merchants in a 19th century world full of adventurers.
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