John McDonogh and Slavery - Our History - McDonogh School

John McDonogh and Slavery

by Ane Lintvedt, McDonogh School, August 2021 

John McDonogh (1779-1850) is known as a philanthropist in Baltimore and a slaveholder in New Orleans. These are two sides of the same coin. John McDonogh made a fortune for himself in New Orleans, primarily as a real estate investor/speculator.  McDonogh bought and sold hundreds of thousands of acres of land, dozens of plantations, and hundreds of enslaved people throughout his life. When he died in 1850, he owned 95 enslaved men, women, and children. He left approximately half of his enormous estate to the city of New Orleans to help fund its public school system. He left the other half to his birth-city of Baltimore to establish a “school farm on an extensive scale for the destitute and the poorest of the poor male children and youth … of all castes of colors,” as he wrote in his Will. To understand and reconcile his complicated relationship with slaveholding and philanthropy, it is important to understand the complicated world in which he lived and operated. There is no question, however, that John McDonogh used the labor of enslaved people for half a century to help make his fortune, and planned that his philanthropies would redeem him in the eyes of his God after he died.

The Young McDonogh

John McDonogh grew up in Baltimore, and then moved to New Orleans at the age of 21 and lived there for the rest of his life.  Baltimore City was established in 1729, and John McDonogh Jr. was born there in 1779. Very little is known about his youth. There is no record of him receiving a formal education, and yet throughout his life he constantly read books, articles, and newspapers; taught himself two foreign languages (Spanish and French); and kept up with international politics and economics. Born into a Presbyterian Christian family, McDonogh recalled his religious upbringing with fondness. His father, John McDonogh Sr., owned a lucrative brickmaking business near the Inner Harbor. Brickmaking was one of the industries that used the most enslaved labor in Baltimore City: 24% of brick-makers owned slaves in 1798.  Baltimore craftsmen also had a tradition of freeing the enslaved when businesses, usually season-related, faltered. (Baltimore’s population in 1800 was 26,500 of which 21% was black.) John Jr. grew up around this flourishing construction business in a rapidly-growing city, in which businessmen bought, sold, and occasionally freed enslaved laborers. McDonogh’s adopted city of New Orleans was strikingly similar to Baltimore. New Orleans was also a rapidly-growing city with a large enslaved and free black population. Both ports were surrounded by rich agricultural lands and elites who had close ties to the Atlantic trade networks. These similarities undoubtedly shaped McDonogh’s ideas about how a complex slave society functioned and the opportunities to make money in the trans-Atlantic economy with cheap land and accessible enslaved labor.*

McDonogh in New Orleans

In 1795, when he was 16, McDonogh was apprenticed to William Taylor, an international businessman in Baltimore. Taylor and his brother in Liverpool, England, ran cargo ships across the trans-Atlantic trade routes (Western Europe, Western Africa, Eastern North and South Americas and the Caribbean). William Taylor sent McDonogh and some other young men who worked for him as his agents to colonial Spanish New Orleans in 1800. When he arrived in Spanish New Orleans in 1800, its population was only about 8,000 people, evenly divided between black and white persons. McDonogh was allowed to deposit and remove money from Taylor’s bank account in New Orleans in order to do Taylor’s business. And he also removed money from Taylor’s accounts to do his own private business, and after completing it, returned all the borrowed money to his employer’s account. McDonogh and his colleagues pounced on the opportunities that the new sugar and cotton industries offered by buying land and enslaved people as fast as they could.

Buying and Selling Enslaved People and Land

Presumably with Taylor’s money, John McDonogh and one of his fellow agents, Shepherd Brown, bought two ship-cargoes of enslaved people from the ships the Margaret (1804) and the Sarah (1806), and McDonogh took possession of a cargo of enslaved people from the Comet (1806). The exact number of enslaved people on the Margaret and the Sarah is not known, but some records indicate they each sailed with about 300 people. These enslaved people were sold at auction in New Orleans. There is, however, a receipt in McDonogh’s papers for the sale of 103 people from the Comet. McDonogh kept the profits for himself and his business partners, and did not tell Taylor about it. This was not strictly illegal, but it certainly was unethical. These three incidents of commissioning, purchasing, and auctioning of the enslaved clearly demonstrates that John McDonogh had no scruples about buying and selling enslaved people, nor about using someone else’s money to jump-start his own fortune.

The Margaret and the Sarah were also the first ships brought into New Orleans directly from the African continent in years, since the African slave trade had been illegal in colonial Louisiana. McDonogh and Brown took advantage of the change in ownership of the Louisiana territory (from Spain to France to the US in 1804). The US hadn’t directly outlawed the African slave trade yet, and the new territorial government was arguing about it. New methods of processing sugar and cotton had made wealthy landowners in Louisiana desperate for more enslaved labor to increase their profits. McDonogh took advantage of access to money, a slightly unstable transition of political power, and a strong economic demand from the New Orleans elites for enslaved labor. And as a result, he had profits from auctioning enslaved people that he could invest in land buying and speculation.

Ultimately, John McDonogh amassed an enormous fortune through real estate investment. In 1803, his father had advised him to buy land. “[G]reat speculations have been made and will be made that way,” his father wrote. Soon thereafter, John McDonogh Jr. took his father’s advice and began to buy land in and around New Orleans and in other Spanish territories.The most spectacular deal he made was to buy approximately 200,000 acres of land in Spanish W. Florida from Spanish landholders in 1803, from the Mississippi River to the panhandle of Florida. (The US government did not recognize his claims, which he contested all the way to the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear his last appeal in 1845.)  At his death, he owned three plantations and the buildings, materials, and people that went with them, hundreds of urban properties in New Orleans, as well as bayous, alluvial lands and cypress swamps scattered throughout Louisiana. Real estate comprised 61% of his net worth. The enslaved people on the three plantations were physically valued at 3% of the total (which of course does not include the value of their labor over time). 

It is not yet known how many slaves McDonogh owned in his lifetime. What we do know now (September 2021) is that over his lifetime McDonogh owned at least 654 enslaved people.  Below are the ownership figures that I have tracked thusfar.

  • 1824 tax receipt:  McDonogh owned 37 people in 1824. 
  • 1830 US Census:  McDonogh owned 85 people.
  • 1840 US Census: he owned 192 people.
  • 1850 Probate Report: at his death he owned 95 people.

From 1803 to 1806, John McDonogh, along with some of his partners, bought and sold 3 ship-cargoes of enslaved people.  For the next 35 years, he bought and sold enslaved people; sometimes singly, sometimes as groups, at least once along with buying sugar plantation. From what we know right now. There is more research being done on this, and it is likely that the number of enslaved people that John McDonogh owned in his lifetime notes above will increase. These numbers put McDonogh’s  slave ownership on par with most significant slave owners in 19th-century Louisiana.

Emancipation and the American Colonization Society

While McDonogh was involved in and profited greatly from enslaved labor, it is also true that he thought seriously about the long-term implications of enslavement. As a child, he saw a complex society of free, enslaved and emancipated blacks in Baltimore. In his early years in New Orleans, he also saw that Spanish colonial Louisiana gave enslaved people the legal right of self-purchase (the coartación) to sue for or buy their freedom from a master. And New Orleans also had a vibrant population of free people of color, which grew at the same pace as the white population between 1800 and 1840, as was about 16% of the population. McDonogh also had business associates, close family friends who were free people of color. He was especially close to the Durnford family, and Andrew Durnford, a free man of color, was his godson to whom he sold land for a neighboring sugar plantation. McDonogh remained a friend and business advisor to his godson throughout his life.

The topics of emancipating the enslaved and the status of free people of color in the new republic were everywhere, and John McDonogh joined the conversations and the calls for action.  In 1816, the American Colonization Society (ACS) was founded.  Its mission stated “its exclusive object [was] ‘to promote and execute a plan for colonizing (with their consent) the Free People of Color residing in our Country, in Africa, or such other place as Congress shall deem most expedient.’" Members had different reasons for supporting this colonization idea. Three major supporting ideas were (i) anti-black racism that argued that because of inherent inferiority of every kind, blacks should not be allowed to live in the same country as whites; (ii) Presbyterian beliefs that black workers who were Christian and who had worked very hard deserved to be freed and live a life free of intimidation; (iii) the belief that the institution of African slavery mocked the nation’s political ideals. Newly-elected President James Monroe was an ardent supporter of the ACS – so much so that the capital city of Liberia was named Monrovia in his honor. Initially, John McDonogh thought that sending free(d) blacks to Liberia would take too long, and he was not an early supporter.  Eventually, however, he came to see the ACS as the only practical way to emancipate some of his enslaved people while at the same time getting more work from them, move them away the U.S., and give them the opportunity to build a society of emancipated black Americans in West Africa.

On his home plantation, McDonoghville, across the Mississippi River from the business district of New Orleans, John McDonogh put a significant amount of time and effort into creating a very detailed emancipation program for some of his enslaved people, starting in the mid-1820s. By working extra hours during their half-day off on Saturdays, the enslaved could obtain their freedom (and their children’s freedom) in 15 years. McDonogh maintained that the program made the enslaved work harder for him because they had incentive to do so with the hope of freedom. This incentivized manumission plan had a significant catch, however:  McDonogh stipulated that he would only free someone if they agreed to go (with their families, usually) to the American Colonization Society’s settlement in Liberia. John McDonogh did not invent this idea of incentivized manumission: he would have seen it used in Baltimore as he was growing up.

John McDonogh sent two groups of emancipated people to Liberia.  In 1842, seventy-seven people from McDonoghville sailed on the Mariposa to Liberia, and in 1859, forty-one people from McDonoghville sailed on the Rebecca. On the Mariposa, there were “23 families and several single persons.” There were brick-makers/brick-layers; sugar mill operators and builders; carpenters; farm hands and carters; a blacksmith, two teachers, a spinner, a seamstress, and two ministers.  There were 27 young children traveling with their parents, and in several cases, grandparents. McDonogh was not getting rid of old, useless people so that he didn’t have to support them. In the parlance of slave-holding Louisiana planters, these were exceptionally valuable slaves.

One of the two ministers aboard the Mariposa was Washington McDonogh, who had been enslaved at McDonoghville. John McDonogh sent him and another young formerly-enslaved man, David McDonogh, to the Presbyterian Lafayette College in Easton, PA, to be trained as a minister and a doctor respectively, and then accompany the Mariposa to Liberia.  Lafayette College had insisted that the young men be freed (secretly, per John McDonogh’s wishes), but still taught them separately from the other young men in the college.  Washington followed John McDonogh’s wishes and joined the Mariposa, but David did not.  John McDonogh was furious, and tried to have the administrators at Lafayette send David back to Louisiana. They did not and David made his way to New York, obtained training as an ophthalmologist at Columbia (also separately from the white students) and became the first professionally-trained black ophthalmologist in the U.S.  Dr. David McDonogh practiced medicine at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, now affiliated with Columbia University,  and in his own private practice. And in 1898, the McDonough [sic] Memorial Hospital was established in New York City and named in his honor. 

McDonogh’s Last Will and Testament

McDonogh wrote his Last Will and Testament in 1838, twelve years before he died. He was then, and remained, unmarried and without children. By 1850, his wealth was $2,079,926.23 (approximately $72.5 million 2021 US dollars). He started his long, hand-written will with small bequests:  gave his sister ten acres of land in Baltimore county and $6000; he freed ten of his 95 enslaved people. He left approximately $25,000 each to (i) the American Colonization Society; (ii) to fund “an asylum for the poor of both sexes and of all ages, and castes of color;” and also (iii) for a “Society for the Relief of Destitute Orphan Boys” in New Orleans. Then he laid out a breathtaking philanthropic plan for the education of the poor in both New Orleans and Baltimore. 

And for the more general diffusion of Knowledge, and consequent well-being of Mankind, convinced as l am that I can make no disposition of those Worldly goods which the most High has been pleased so bountifully to place under my Stewardship, that will be so pleasing to him, as that by means of which the poor will be instructed in Wisdom and led into the path of virtue and Holiness, I give will and bequeath, all the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, real and personal, present and. future,[…]for the establishment and support of Free Schools in said Cities, and their respective Suburbs, (including the Town of McDonogh as a Suburb of New Orleans) wherein the poor (and the poor only) of both sexes of all Classes and Castes of Color, shall have admittance, free of expense for the purpose of being instructed in the Knowledge of the Lord and in reading, writing, Arithmetic, History, Geography &c, &c,  […]And that Singing classes shall be established and forever supported, and singing taught, as a regular branch of education in said Schools, by which means, every pupil will acquire the rudiments of the Art, and obtain a Knowledge in singing Sacred Music…. [From McDonogh’s Will, emphasis mine]

McDonogh was not known as a particularly devout man, nor was he seen as being particularly interested in children’s education. He was raised as a Presbyterian in Baltimore, but there were no such churches in very-Catholic New Orleans. He did build a church on his McDonoghville plantation, helped found the first Episcopal Church in the City in 1805, was a friend and benefactor to the Catholic Ursuline convent school, and paid for the education of several children of deceased-friends over the years.  But there was nothing on the scale of his enormous educational bequests during his lifetime. In his Will, however, he tries to justify his wealth, his use of enslaved laborers, and his notoriously-miser-like existence by many appeals to Christian duty. The clearest example of this is the following statement at the end of his Will:

Those feelings of Jealousy, which the poor entertains of the rich, is wrong; It is sinful, and contrary to the laws of our Divine Creator; who has shown in His works (as in his words,) that He did not intend a perfect equality to exist among men. As He has not made all men equal in strength, in stature or intellect, neither has His decrees established an equality of fortune.  Let Man then bow with humble resignation, to the Divine Will. The poor should look on the rich [...] as Reservoirs, in which the Most High, makes to flow, the rich Streams of His beneficence, to be laid up, and husbanded for his all-wise, and all-seeing purposes; and for Seasons of distress and affliction to the poor.-Instead then of looking on them as their greatest Enemies, they should on the Contrary, consider them as they really are, their best friends. -This is the position all rich men, (whose hearts occupy the right place in their bosoms,) stand in towards the poor. Besides, Let the poorer Classes of the World be consoled, assured, that the labor loving, frugal, industrious, and virtuous among them, possess Joys and happiness in this life, which the rich know not, and cannot appreciate. [From McDonogh’s Will, emphasis mine]

McDonogh clearly hoped that the Divine Creator would judge him as a rich man whose heart occupied the right place in his bosom. He insisted that his accumulation of wealth and status was what God had planned all along, so he could give it away at the end of his life to the poor. The failure to free the enslaved people on his properties was not immoral; their work and therefore his wealth was necessary for the greater good.

Even after his death, McDonogh envisioned the use of enslaved labor to fund his philanthropies. The free schools in both cities were to be financed based on the value of the lands he owned, which could be rented, worked, or sold. They were also to be financed with the crops grown on the plantations, which would be worked in perpetuity by recurring purchases of the enslaved – at least until the slavery was abolished.

[The generations of enslaved should] serve also fifteen years, and be sent to Africa and so on, as often as the Commissioners and Agents of the General Estate, may see fit and proper, and that [if] there is Slaves to be purchased, by which means, a two-fold object, would be accomplished, Viz a revenue from the Estates cultivated, greater than what they would yield, by renting them out; and the returning every Fifteen years, an additional number of the human race, Christianized and Civilized, to the land of their forefathers.  [From McDonogh’s Will, emphasis mine]

McDonogh was trying to combine the economically-advantageous use of enslaved labor, his philanthropic projects of schools for the poor, and the presumed rewards for the freed blacks of an African home, a Christian church, and American civilization.  His support of the ACS and his after-death philanthropies were his best attempts at rationalizing his use of enslaved labor. 

Ultimately, a long series of legal actions, the US Civil War, and the Reconstruction abolition of slavery unraveled McDonogh’s plans to have his lands worked in perpetuity by enslaved people. Instead, his lands were sold off and the proceeds divided between the public school system in New Orleans and the school farm for poor boys in Baltimore. The attitudes of the post-Civil War, Jim Crow white elites ensured that the schools in both cities were for white children, counter to McDonogh’s express directions.  McDonogh School in Baltimore began desegregation in 1959, although there were periodic discussions at the Board of Trustees level about honoring McDonogh’s request of “all classes and castes of color.” The New Orleans public schools began desegregating in 1960, with McDonogh School #19 being one of the first two schools to do so.

John McDonogh bought and sold enslaved people for half a century.  His wealth in real estate was bound with the value of enslaved labor and enslaved people in 19th-century Louisiana.  Like Thomas Jefferson a generation before, McDonogh recognized that slavery was a “foul stain” on the US Republic. And like Jefferson, McDonogh was unwilling to unilaterally free the enslaved people on his plantation(s) or embrace the abolishment of slavery as a moral imperative. Instead, and unlike Jefferson, McDonogh embraced the idea of a contracted emancipation agreement and eventual dis-location of the freed people of McDonoghville to Liberia, and out of the US Republic. To him, an incentivized manumission program and subsequent colonization made economic and moral sense.  In the slave society in which he lived, he sought a middle ground; at least, a middle ground for a slave-holding white man in Louisiana in the first half of the 19th century.   John McDonogh used the labor and capital of many hundreds of enslaved people to help make his fortune; he freed almost 200 enslaved laborers; and he hoped that his post-mortem philanthropies would redeem him.

In 1804, only four years after arriving in New Orleans, the young and ambitious McDonogh wrote a set of “Rules for Guidance in My Life.” The 24-year-old emphasized religious devotion (“Tend by all means in your power to the honor and glory of the Divine Creator”), the value of work (“Remember always that labor is one of the conditions of our existence”),  frugality (“Never give out that which does not come in.  Never spend but to produce”), and philanthropy (“Study in your course of life to do the greatest possible amount of good”). McDonogh School in Baltimore has emphasized the philanthropic piece of John McDonogh’s legacy, leaning into “the greatest good” as a teaching and community value and tool. The history of John McDonogh’s background and use of enslaved labor, however, has never been consistently taught.  In part, this is due to a lack of credible historical sources, which this essay attempts to correct.

As we move in the third decade of the 21st century, and towards our 150th anniversary (2023), it is time to surface the whole history of the founder of the School and the roots of the philanthropy that drives it.  John McDonogh’s history shines a light some of the complicated ways in which ideals such as capitalism, enslavement, equality, freedom, wealth, and philanthropy were intertwined in 19th-century US history. It also gives us a mere glimpse of the complex lives led by enslaved people, whose bodies were used as labor and as forms of capital, and who took initiatives to free themselves from enslavement. 

For an extended look at the evidence that undergirds this essay, please see the longer version of the researched essay on this site, complete with footnotes and a bibliography. Please know that this research is ongoing, and these essays are subject to revisions accordingly. A Lintvedt

* I’d like to thank Dr. John Wood for his work on the first version of this essay in 2009 and his conversations about it over the years.


Expanded Essay: John McDonogh and Slavery