John Robbins was born in Bustleton, Pennsylvania, (now a part of Philadelphia), near Lower Dublin Township, Pennsylvania. He was a student at the Gunmere Academy in Burlington, New Jersey. He moved to Philadelphia in 1836 and engaged in the manufacture of steel. He was a member of the board of commissioners of the district of Kensington, Pennsylvania, and served as president several years.
Robbins was elected as a Democrat to the Thirty-first, Thirty-second, and Thirty-third Congresses. He declined to be a candidate for renomination in 1854, and was an unsuccessful candidate for the office of the Mayor of Philadelphia in 1860. He resumed the steel manufacturing business and held several municipal offices.
Robbins was again elected to the Forty-fourth Congress, but declined to be a candidate for renomination in 1876. He was a member of the board of education and served as president for many years, as well as president and director of the Kensington National Bank. He died in Philadelphia and was interred in Laurel Hill Cemetery.