1779 - 1850
Of Scots-Irish ancestry, John McDonogh was born in Baltimore on December 29, 1779. His father, a farmer, brick maker and Revolutionary soldier, reared a large family. John began his career at an early age in the house of William Taylor, a Baltimore flour merchant, and was sometimes sent as supercargo with shipments of merchandise. He represented the firm in New Orleans in 1800 and soon went into business there for himself, handling miscellaneous merchandise. With faith in the future of mid America, he invested his increasing profits in real estate.
Tall, erect, clear-eyed, his features sternly etched into a countenance of strength, John McDonogh was striking in appearance. Dressed in black, his clothes cut to conform to the style of half a century before his time, he was as indifferent to men's changing whims as to their unkind words. Men said of him that he was penurious, eccentric, and visionary. They called him "McDonogh, the Miser," because he molded his life to his own peculiar pattern.
McDonogh made his real estate purchases with foresight, buying unimproved acreage near areas under development. His properties at one time completely circumscribed New Orleans. Though he could have turned his plantations over with profit, he kept them intact, putting thousands of acres into cultivation in the production of sugar and cotton. He sold his mercantile business in New Orleans in 1806, investing the money in acreage.
For many years John McDonogh was active in the business and social life of the city. He was an active member of the Episcopal Church and at one time was a director of the Louisiana State Bank. In 1814 he enrolled as a volunteer with Beal's Rifles in the defense of New Orleans. McDonogh moved to one of his plantations on the west bank of the Mississippi River in 1817. Here he lived the life of a hermit and concentrated on the accumulation of land and the management of his properties. Though he never married, it was rumored that his abrupt departure from the city was prompted by a disappointment in love; this was never substantiated. However, after he died a lady's slipper and a bit of faded ribbon were found among his private papers.
He educated four younger brothers and a sister, provided for a number of orphans, and when William Taylor, his former employer, was forced into bankruptcy, he made a home for him. McDonogh initiated a novel scheme for the emancipation of his slaves. He was of the opinion that a slave could not appreciate his liberty unless he had earned it. Each slave was given some leisure, and if he consumed the time in toil, he was credited with it, and when his cash balance equaled his purchase price, he was emancipated. His first contingent of eighty slaves left for Liberia, Africa, on a ship furnished by the American Colonization Society in 1842.
In his later years, McDonogh turned his attention to the use of his great fortune for the education of the boys and girls of Baltimore and New Orleans. At the time of his death, his estate was valued in excess of two million dollars, but litigation, inspired in cupidity, continued for twenty years. Finally a million and a half dollars was divided between the two public school systems for building thirty-six schools. Baltimore constructed an industrial training school.
In the consecration of his great wealth for the education of youth, McDonogh asked only "that it may be permitted annually to the children of the free schools to plant and water a few flowers around my grave." On McDonogh Day in New Orleans children strew flowers at the feet of his monument in Lafayette Square which was unveiled in 1898 and paid for by contributions of the city's school children. In Baltimore the covering of his grave with flowers is performed by the school children as a part of their commencement exercises.
McDonogh died at his plantation on October 26, 1850, and his remains temporarily rested in a tomb there upon which his code of conduct is inscribed. In accordance with his request, his body was removed to the Greenmount Cemetery at Baltimore in 1864, near a monument dedicated to his memory.
At the age of twenty-five John McDonogh set himself an uncompromising challenge in the formation of "Rules for My Guidance in Life." "Remember, he wrote, "...labor is one of the conditions of our existence...time is gold...never think any matter so trivial as not to deserve notice...never give out that which does not first come in...without temperance there is no health; without virtue, no order; without religion, no happiness; and the sum of our being is to live wisely, soberly and righteously."