The university, worried about its reputation well before wokedom seized control of the public square, presented the welcome story that Hopkins, a Quaker and unionist, was an abolitionist. But now the university admits that he apparently owned four slaves. Oops!
In normal times such news would be unexceptional. Until the Civil War, America was a slave society. Maryland was a slave state. And pro‐slavery sentiment was strongest in the eastern part of the state, where Hopkins was born, lived, and died.
But the report stunned some. Johns Hopkins University (JHU) history professor Martha S. Jones wrote that “the shattered myth of our university founder, long admired as a Quaker and abolitionist, rattles our school community.” She explained that her pride in the school “for me, now mixes with bitterness. Our university was the gift of a man who traded in the liberty and dignity of other men and women.”
Yet there is little to be gained from judging Hopkins by today’s standards. He was born in 1795, when slavery, though deeply reviled by a few, was widely accepted. His later conduct was ordinary, reflecting the banality of evil in later description, which characterized the tragedy of slavery in America.
Slaves were not his business. He was no southern planter, with scores of enslaved field hands the basis of his wealth. Moreover, Hopkins may have freed his slaves at some point, since he was known as an abolitionist in the community later in life. Indeed, he reportedly worked with abolitionists, his notoriety making enemies in Baltimore.
A complicated, even equivocal, relationship with the terrible practice was not unusual in America. Thomas Jefferson recognized the devastating contradiction — colonists proclaiming their independence to defend liberty, while denying the same freedom to others because of their skin color. If Hopkins turned against the institution after enjoying the comforts provided by slaves, he arguably deserves more credit than if he unthinkingly inherited abolition as a family trait.