Johns Hopkins (1795-1873):
“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” ?
©Edward Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist, retired
On May 19, 1870, one of the largest parades ever held in the United States in support of the birthright citizenship of former slaves and freeborn Blacks was held in Baltimore. The day chosen happened also to be the birthday of one of Baltimore's prominent citizens, Johns Hopkins.
When someone leaves a sizeable fortune to benefit his family and all the people of his community through improved healthcare, a grand home for 400 Black orphans, and an institution designed to provide the higher education he never attained, there is bound to be interest in who he was, how he made his money, and why he left such a large bequest in the manner he did.
The difficulty in attempting to answer these questions is that there is no corpus of personal papers remaining, only fragments here and there. Speculation is rampant as to why that is the case. Perhaps he did not write a lot of letters, keep a journal or diary like his slightly younger contemporary Quaker, Richard Townsend who knew Johns Hopkins’s family well, or a frequent visitor to Clifton in the late 1860s, Madge Preston. Perhaps his papers were intentionally destroyed to prevent historians from probing his personal foibles or business practices. A more likely explanation is that when the great Baltimore fire of 1904 destroyed the commercial and financial district of the city where his bank, his offices, and his warehouses were located, any personal papers of his went up in smoke. Whatever the case may be, however, historians are left largely to the public record and often questionable memories of others to reconstruct the life and times of Johns Hopkins whose birthday is the 19th of May.
When Winston Churchill referred to “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he was referring to the intentions and interests of Russia in 1939, not about the life of a wealthy Baltimore merchant banker, but as Churchill also held out hope of unraveling his mystery, there is yet hope with regard to Johns Hopkins.
In the years since Johns Hopkins’s death in 1873 only a grand niece has written a book length remembrance, a silhouette, of his life. It is based almost exclusively on the often faulty memories of family and acquaintances without any effort to seek out details buried in the public record and or even to question those memories.
For over a century, the University and most scholars have chosen to accept Johns Hopkins as his grand niece portrays him. Recently however, at least one scholar has raised the spectre of Johns Hopkins owning slaves, particularly in 1850. Another scholar, with the support and suggestions of three fellow researchers, has offered a significantly broader interpretation of his life that rules out slave ownership and calls attention to an impressive body of newly discovered evidence about his life. It seems that not only was Johns Hopkins human after all, but he also was not the Simon Legree that some accuse him of being. But who was he? The portrait of him that graces the reprint edition of Helen Thom’s silhouette is a striking painting of a bemused and confident individual said to have been painted by Alfred Jacob Miller, but is it a contemporary image of the Quaker banker?
Attempting to sort out the degree to which anyone in Baltimore in the years before the Civil War was complicit in support of the institution of slavery is no easy task, let alone assessing the degree to which a rich merchant banker may have been an advocate for emancipation, immediate or otherwise.
Slowly but surely, with the assistance of students and colleagues, one scholar has begun to piece together a fuller understanding of who Johns Hopkins might have been and to explore what may have motivated him to leave his worldly wealth in the manner he did.
What influence may his Quaker upbringing have had on his views of slaves and slavery? Did he grow up in a slaveholding family? When he moved to Baltimore in 1813 and lived with his Uncle Gerard to learn the grocery business, what influence might his uncle, his cousins, especially Elizabeth, and his brothers have had on his business practices and adherence to Quaker discipline regarding slaves and slavery? How large a role did the withdrawal of the Orthodox Quakers from the Lombard Street Meeting and their embracing the views on Slavery of the Quaker banker from Norwich, Joseph John Gurney, play in the life of the soon to be banker from Baltimore?
And then there is the question of what the Black community of Baltimore before and after the Civil War thought of Johns Hopkins. It clearly expressed pleasure and great optimism with the announcement of his plans to provide medical care and an orphanage in 1867. Was indeed the choice of May 19 for the 1870 parade just a coincidence that it was also Johns Hopkins’s birthday? Those who organized the parade in 1870 were prominent among those who organized the meeting at the Douglass Institute to praise him three years before.
When the Johns Hopkins History Seminar was established in the University Johns Hopkins endowed, its charge was to study the past “scientifically” in an effort to explore how things actually were (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist), devoid of personal bias. To achieve that goal requires a careful examination of all surviving data and thoughtful reflection on meaning before judgment.
As far as Johns Hopkins and slavery is concerned a widely circulated judgment has been made, yet a careful assessment of the surviving evidence suggests that the judgment is premature. Johns Hopkins remains an enigma, but perhaps through continuing to seek the truth, we can come closer to solving the riddle of who he was,what he believed, and why he acted in the way he did to benefit everyone in the city where his fortune was made.
 For a listing and facsimiles of some of the fragments see: https://exhibits.library.jhu.
 Two overlooked diaries mentioning Johns Hopkins: Richard Townsend diaries, transcripts Enoch Pratt Free Library and Madge Preston and Virginia W. Beauchamp. A Private War: Letters and Diaries of Madge Preston, 1862-1867. New Brunswick: Rutgers Univ. Pr, 1987.
For an ongoing analysis of the surviving evidence relating to Johns Hopkins and slavery see"Seeking the Truth: Johns Hopkins and Slavery" an Open Science Framework at https://osf.io/zra5f/ See also The House of Hopkins, which can be viewed at https://www.thehouseofhopkins.
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