If He Could See Us Now:
Mr. Johns Hopkins' Legacy Strong
by Mike Field
(Originally printed in The Gazette, May 22, 1995)
At his death, the old man didn't leave much in the way of written records. In his 78 years he gave no speeches that are recorded, wrote no journals or opinion pieces that have ever been discovered and somehow managed to keep well away from the press.
What few letters he wrote pertain largely to business. His will--in which he bequeathed the unprecedented sum of $7 million to found a university and a hospital bearing his name--is a characteristically taciturn affair, stating only, for instance, that the university should be "for the promotion of education in Maryland."
Yet if Johns Hopkins left a dearth of written testimony when he died in 1873, there has never been a shortage of anecdotes and stories about the man--many of them, perhaps, apocryphal.
For instance, there is the hoary old myth that the great American tycoon--then one of the wealthiest men in the country-- died of pneumonia brought about because he was "too miserly" to buy a great coat. The truth is somewhat more difficult to ascertain, although it was widely known the stern Quaker and former farm boy could be especially careful in his personal spending habits.
In his own lifetime this fact was so widely reported that the comment calling Hopkins "the only man more interested in making money than I" is variously attributed to his former business partner, a close associate, even international financier George Peabody--anyone, it seems, who had business dealings with the notoriously cheap Mr. Hopkins.
Yet it was probably habit, if anything, which hastened the Baltimore merchant banker's demise. Shortly before his death, the city experienced a record cold snap, with temperatures plunging to 20 below zero. Hopkins, already sick and showing some of the frailty of his advancing years, nonetheless insisted on walking to his office.
As usual, he refused to wear an overcoat or overshoes--he had been, all his life, an exceptionally vigorous man--but within days of this jaunt pneumonia developed, and on Christmas eve he died quietly at home in his bed, tended by his sister Eliza and guarded by his faithful dog Zeno.
He left no descendants--he never married--but at the end of his years he playfully called the two institutions he planned on founding "my children" and spent considerable energy providing for their futures.
Although unmarried, he was not without family. Hopkins was the second of 11 children, and much of his later life was taken up with the care and concern for sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces.
One nephew in particular was to later recall dinners at Clifton--the palatial Italianate summer home Hopkins purchased in 1838--as opulent affairs that always featured champagne. "I never took a dinner at Clifton when there was not champagne, whether company was there or not," he was to recall years later.
"[A servant] started to fill my glass and I put my hand over it. ' Take thy hand off thy glass, Joe,' said Uncle Johns. 'Let the wine stand if thee does not want it, but don't publish thy temperance resolves.' "
The nephew's reminiscence captures something of the enigma of Johns Hopkins: a man whose firmly held religious beliefs included fervent abolitionism, hard work, simple pleasures and the antiquated use of thee and thou to emphasize a Quaker commitment to egalitarianism.
Hopkins would, nonetheless, spend considerable sums of money enlarging and improving his beloved Clifton, eventually expanding the estate to 330 acres of carefully planted gardens surrounding a towered mansion where he lived alone and where he dined, each evening, with the finest French champagnes, apparently heedless of the Quaker beliefs in the danger of drink. Teetotalers who advertised their temperance, it has been said, vexed him mightily.
Born 200 years ago on May 19, Hopkins' well-to-do parents were landholders in Anne Arundel County, known particularly for their frequent entertainments, of which fox hunting was a speciality.
The family lived and worked on a modest but prosperous tobacco plantation called Whitehall, made profitable through the use of slave labor. Initially, at least, Johns Hopkins grew up a sheltered child of the plantation aristocracy.
When he was 12, however, his family--prodded by conscience and the dictates of their newly adopted Quaker faith--set free all their slaves. The young Johns' idyllic life came suddenly to an end. He and his older brother were recalled from boarding school to work the fields; life for the entire family became one of simplicity, frugality and the toil of the land. He would carry the habits of thrift and hard work he developed at this time with him throughout his life.
Nor would he lose his sense of social justice. An abolitionist before the term was even invented, Johns Hopkins demonstrated a lifelong concern for those the larger society exploited or ignored.
At his death, for instance, he stipulated the hospital bearing his name must admit black citizens as well as white, and provided money for the care of the indigent, formerly rural African Americans who had begun streaming into the nation's cities such as Baltimore.
As a successful businessman he took special delight in making low-interest loans to promising young applicants who had been turned down everywhere else. As a rich uncle he was parsimonious to his nephews and nieces, yet he bailed their parents out repeatedly, and at the time of his death left more than a million dollars to be divided among his surviving relatives.
One thing seemed inescapable: he had a shrewd business sense and a nose for new ideas and new systems that would make money. At his death, he was the major investor (and the power behind the throne) in the B&O Railroad, a daring and novel venture that repaid him handsomely. It was largely through B&O stock that Hopkins became one of the wealthiest men in America. It was that same stock that later funded a university and a hospital.
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