When Johns Hopkins and Abraham Lincoln Were Pen Pals

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Well, “pen pals” might be stretching it — the Library of Congress’ online collection of Lincoln correspondence contains only one letter from Hopkins to the then-president, dated 1862. As you may have heard, that was a rough time for Lincoln — and Hopkins, a pro-Union big wig in Baltimore, had some advice to give.

This letter is exciting to see for a few reasons. Firstly, Hopkins destroyed most of his personal papers before his death, so our understanding of his life and personal relationships is somewhat sketchy. Secondly, well, it’s Lincoln!

The letter in question requires a bit of set up. According to the Johns Hopkins Hub, it centers on how to deal with Major General John E. Wool, a crotchety old (78!) War of 1812 vet who was in command of Baltimore when the Civil War erupted. When some apparently pro-Union Baltimoreans circulated a petition to remove Wool because he was incompetent and possibly senile, Wool arrested everyone who signed. In his letter to Lincoln, Hopkins took the tricky position of arguing in favor of Wool — in order to preserve law and order in a Union city with a large pro-Confederate population.  Here’s what he said:

Sir, When I had last the pleasure of seeing you, I press’d on you the importance of retaining Genl Wool in his present position here, looking to the preservation of the peace of the city, and the cause of the Union.

Present events which have renewed the efforts of certain parties to remove him, only confirm me in my former convictions; and my object in now addressing you is to throw what weight I can into the scale in favour of his being retained—I am of the opinion that no one whom you could put in his place, could better serve the purposes of the government, in a city whose peace and tranquility at this time are in great measure owing to his judgement and discretion.

With sentiments of the highest regard—your Servant & friend

Johns Hopkins

Cannily, Lincoln found a way to get rid of Wool without firing him; he simply transferred him to a post in New York City. Perhaps more interesting, though, is the relationship between Lincoln and Hopkins that the letter hints at. “Clearly they had met previously—Hopkins wrote, ‘when I had last the pleasure of seeing you’ (emphasis added),” Neil Grauer points out in the Hub article. “It also shows that Hopkins was not only a firm supporter of the Union but an admirer of Lincoln, signing the letter ‘your Servant & friend.’ “

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  1. Glad to see that the text of this interesting article included the correct spelling of Johns Hopkins, even if the title had it incorrect! FYI, our founder received his distinctive (and oft-misspelled) first name from his great-grandmother, Margaret Johns.

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