Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Edward Tompkins (1815–1872): Attorney, UC Regent, State Senator

UC Regent & Senator Edward Tompkins (photo on left by Michael Colbruno)

Edward Tompkins was an attorney, University of California Regent and State Senator.

Tompkins was born in 1815 in rural Paris Hill, New York. Tompkins enrolled in Union University in Schenectady, NY in 1831 and joined the Sigma-Phi Society. Tompkins graduated, earned a law degree at Hamilton College, and practiced law in New York City and later Binghamton, NY as a partner to Daniel S. Dickinson. Tompkins married a Quaker woman, Mary Cook, from Bridgeport, Connecticut. She died several years later.

Tompkins moved to San Francisco, California in 1859. Standing atop Telegraph Hill, he looked around at the beautiful panorama and declared, "This shall be my home!"  He soon found employment at the law firm of Halleck, Peacy & Billings, before being a co-partner with the firm Havens & Belknap. He later formed his own firm with his son.

In 1861, Tompkins married Sarah Haight, the half-sister of future California Governor Henry Huntly Haight.  She was twenty years younger than Tompkins's. They built a home on the banks of Lake Merritt in Oakland. 

In 1868, he purchased what became the Dunsmuir Estate in Oakland. The property was once part of one the largest land grants in California, issued to Luis Maria Peralta. When Tompkins died in 1872 he left the estate to his son, Gilbert Tompkins, an editor of the San Leandro Reporter.  Josephine Wallace (Alexander Dunsmuir's future wife) was a cousin of the Tompkins family and often visited the estate as a child.

Tompkins was elected in 1869 to represent Alameda County in the California State Senate and became Chair of the powerful Judiciary Committee. In 1870 Tompkins, a self-described Constitutional Democrat, spoke in favor of ratification of the 15th Amendment and voted against a California Senate resolution opposing California's proposed ratification. The Fifteenth Amendment  to the United States Constitution prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

He is remembered today for endowing the Louis Agassiz Chair for Oriental Languages and Literature at the University of California where he had been elected to the board of regents. As a state senator Tompkins argued for the creation of the University of California as recommended by the previous governor, Frederick Low. The charter creating the university (then only an agricultural school) passed on March 23, 1868 and Tompkins was elected to a four-year term on the Board of Regents of the University of California later that same year.

Tompkins endowed the school's chair on September 18, 1872 only months before he died. His initial gift of 47 acres of land, which sold for $50,000 ($984,306 in 2015), was evaluated on June 30, 2008 at more than $5,700,000. Abraham Lincoln established the first University of California endowment when he signed the Morrill Act on July 2, 1862, thereby establishing the land-grant colleges and universities—including the University of California.

Tompkins said that he felt "deeply the humiliation" of seeing Asian students go to the East Coast "in search of that intellectual hospitality that we are not yet enlightened enough to extend to them. Tompkins's interest in Oriental studies grew out of his anticipation of expanded trans-Pacific commerce.

Upon Tompkins's death, his position on the board of regents was filled by his brother-in-law, former Governor H.H. Haight. Some of Tompkins's letters are archived with papers of his relatives at Bancroft Library.

Tompkins also had a role in the creation of Mountain View Cemetery. Along with Rev. Isaac Brayton and  businessman Peter Thompson, Tompkns had acquired ownership and responsibility for Oakland Cemetery, which was located near Lake Merritt. Brayton owned land well out of town, which he believed to be a perfect place for new cemetery.  The three men turned to Samuel Merritt, who lived on Madison  Street, just a few blocks south of Oakland Cemetery.  On December 26, 1863, Merritt called  a pair of meetings that led to Brayton's property becoming Mountain View Cemetery.

Sources: Wikipedia, University of California at Berkeley archives (Bancroft Library), Historic American Landscapes Survey of the National Park Service, History of Alameda County: Volume 2.

No comments: