Johns Hopkins was born May 19, 1795 into a Quaker family in Maryland.
In 1807, the Hopkins emancipated their slaves in accordance with a local decree, which called for freeing the able-bodied and caring for the others, who would remain at the plantation and provide labor as they could.
As the second eldest of eleven children, 12 year-old Johns Hopkins was required to work on the family farm, interrupting his formal education.
In 1812, at the age of 17, Hopkins left the family farm to work in his uncle Gerard Hopkins’ Baltimore wholesale grocery business.
While living with his uncle’s family, Johns and his cousin, Elizabeth, fell in love; however, the Quaker taboo against marriage of first cousins was especially strong, and neither Johns nor Elizabeth ever married.
Hopkins’ early successes in business came when he was put in charge of the store while his uncle was away during the War of 1812.
Then, after seven years with his uncle, Hopkins went into business with Benjamin Moore, a fellow Quaker.
The business partnership was later dissolved with devout Quaker Moore purporting Hopkins’ penchant for capital accumulation as the cause for the divide.
After Moore’s withdrawal, Hopkins partnered with three of his brothers and established Hopkins & Brothers.
The company prospered by selling various wares in the Shenandoah Valley from Conestoga wagons, sometimes in exchange for corn whiskey, which was then sold in Baltimore as “Hopkins’ Best”.
The bulk of Hopkins’ fortune however was made by his judicious investments in a myriad of ventures, most notably the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O), of which he became a Director in 1847 and Chairman of the Finance Committee in 1855.
Hopkins also became President of Merchants’ Bank as well as director of a number of other organizations.
A charitable individual, Hopkins put up his own money more than once to not only aid Baltimore City during times of financial crises, but also to bail the B&O railroad out of debt in 1857.
One of the first campaigns of the American Civil War was planned at Johns Hopkins’ summer estate, Clifton, where he had entertained a number of foreign dignitaries including the future King Edward VII.
Hopkins was a strong supporter of the Union, unlike most Marylanders, who sympathized with and often supported the South and the Confederacy.
During the Civil War, Clifton became a frequent meeting place for local Union sympathizers, and federal officials.
Hopkins’ support of Abraham Lincoln also often put him at odds with some of Maryland’s most prominent people, particularly Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, who continually opposed Lincoln’s presidential decisions, such as his policies of limiting habeas corpus and stationing troops in Maryland.
In 1862, Hopkins wrote a letter to Lincoln requesting the President not to heed the detractors’ calls and continue to keep soldiers stationed in Maryland.
Hopkins also pledged financial and logistic support to Lincoln, in particular the free use of the B&O railway system.
After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, Johns Hopkins’ stance on abolitionism infuriated many prominent people in Baltimore.
Living his entire adult life in Baltimore, Hopkins made many friends among the city’s social elite, many of them Quakers. One of these friends was George Peabody, who was also born in 1795, and who in 1857 founded the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. On the advice of Peabody, some believe, Hopkins determined to use his great wealth for the public good.
The Civil War had taken its toll on Baltimore, however, as did the yellow fever and cholera epidemics that repeatedly ravaged the nation’s cities, killing 853 in Baltimore in the summer of 1832 alone.
Hopkins was keenly aware of the city’s need for medical facilities, particularly in light of the medical advances made during the war, and in 1870 he made a will setting aside seven million dollars – mostly in B&O stock – for the incorporation of a free hospital and affiliated medical and nurse’s training colleges, as well as an orphanage for colored children and a university.
Following Johns Hopkins death December 24, 1873, the Baltimore Sun wrote a lengthy obituary which closed thus:
“In the death of Johns Hopkins a career has been closed which affords a rare example of successful energy in individual accumulations, and of practical beneficence in devoting the gains thus acquired to the public.”
Per Johns Hopkins bequest, Johns Hopkins Colored Children Orphan Asylum was founded in 1875.
In 1876, Johns Hopkins University was founded.
The Johns Hopkins Press, was founded in 1878, which became the longest continuously operating academic press in America.
By 1889, Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing had been founded, followed by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in 1893 and the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health in 1916.
Hopkins contribution to form his university has become his greatest legacy, by all accounts, the largest philanthropic bequest ever made to an American educational institution.
Also in his will, Hopkins also made provisions for scholarships to be provided for poor youths in the states where Johns Hopkins had made his wealth, as well as assistance to orphanages other than the one for African American children, to members of his family, to those he employed, black and white, his cousin Elizabeth, and, again, to other institutions for the care and education of youths regardless of color and the care of the elderly, and the ill, including the mentally ill, and convalescents.
Hopkins philanthropy, banking and other business practices were founded neither on slavery nor on the separate but unequal racism of the post Civil War years of his life. In this vein, integral parts of his legacy, as an emancipator, a founder of an orphan asylum for African-American youths, a staunch advocate of abolitionism and of quality care not just for those physically ill, but also for the elderly, the poor, no matter their age, gender, or skin color, and the mentally ill, have by and large been overlooked, even in the institutions that carry his name.
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