George Peabody was born in Danvers, Massachusetts into a family of modest means. With only four years of formal education and no family connections, he achieved enormous international success as an investment banker in London. He is considered by many to be the founder of modern philanthropy.
While serving as a volunteer in the War of 1812, Peabody met Elisha Riggs of Baltimore. In 1814, Riggs supplied financial backing to found the wholesale dry goods firm of Peabody, Riggs, and Company. In 1816, Peabody moved to Baltimore and took offices in Old Congress Hall on Baltimore and Sharp Streets. Baltimore was his home for the next 20 years. The thriving Baltimore business soon established branches in Philadelphia and New York. Seeking still wider business opportunities, George Peabody traveled to England in 1827 to purchase wares and to negotiate the sale of American cotton in Lancashire. In 1837, the year Queen Victoria ascended the throne, he took up residence in London.
In 1838, Peabody played an important role in the rescue of the financial fortunes of the state of Maryland and other states by his support of their bonds. At a time when the market was flooded with such instruments, Peabody was able to sell Maryland bonds to Baring Brothers by assuring the company of the state's good faith and credit, and then bought a quantity of the securities himself. He also campaigned for the states to honor their commitments. When the states did so, Peabody made a fortune on the bonds he had purchased when much of the public thought them worthless.
In 1851, Britain, which had been moving towards free trade, staged The Great Exhibition of the World of Industry of All Nations in London. The event took place in a daring new exhibition hall, dubbed the "Crystal Palace" by the British press. The purpose of the exhibition was to show off British products to new foreign markets. President Fillmore provided transportation for American goods to the Exhibition, but Congress, still suspicious of the British, refused funds for U.S. participation in this "speculative venture." The American exhibits languished in their crates while the British press heaped scorn on the former colony. Peabody recognized the importance of his country's taking part and put up L3,000 (about $15,000) of his own funds to install the American exhibits. His investment paid off handsomely, as immense crowds flocked to see Colt's revolver, Cyrus McCormick's reaping machine, fine daguerreotypes, and other wonders.
During this period, British society was reeling under the impact of industrialization and uncontrolled urban growth, with the homeless and destitute increasing at an appalling rate. The problems plaguing England spurred the adoption of the Poor Laws and gave rise to a host of charitable causes. Charles Dickens' writings reminded the more affluent of the plight of the poor. The Ragged Schools received Lord Shaftesbury's parliamentary backing and Angela Burdett-Coutts' financial support. George Peabody knew these people and shared their concerns.
Peabody's philanthropic activities began after the Great Exhibition. All of them were aimed towards improving society, and particularly at providing the less fortunate with the means to improve themselves. Unlike many philanthropists of the period, Peabody's activities were not intended to promote religious beliefs; in fact, he clearly stated that his institutions were not to be used to nurture sectarian theology or political dissention. An 1831 letter to his nephew, David Peabody, probably provides the best insight into the reasons for his philanthropy:
In London, Peabody established the Peabody Donation Fund, which continues to this day to provide subsidized housing to the working class in London. In America, Peabody founded and supported numerous institutions in New England and elsewhere. At the close of the Civil War, he established the Peabody Education Fund to "encourage the intellectual, moral, and industrial education of the destitute children of the Southern States." His grandest beneficence, however, was to Baltimore; the city in which he achieved his earliest success.
George Peabody is known to have provided benefactions of more than $8 million, most of them in his own lifetime. Among the list are included:
1852 The Peabody Institute, Peabody, Mass: $217,000
1856 The Peabody Institute, Danvers, Mass: $100,000
1857 The Peabody Institute, Baltimore: $1,400,000
1862 The Peabody Donation Fund, London: $2,500,000
1866 The Peabody Museum, Harvard: $150,000
1867 The Peabody Museum, Salem, Mass: $140,000
1867 Peabody Education Fund: $2,000,000
George Peabody died in London on November 4, 1869. At the request of the Dean of Westminster and with the approval of the Queen, Peabody was given a temporary burial in Westminster Abbey. His will provided that he be buried in the town of his birth, Danvers, Massachusetts, and Prime Minster Gladstone arranged for Peabody's remains to be returned to America on the Monarch, the newest and largest ship in Her Majesty's Navy.
Peabody was honored on both sides of the Atlantic for his generosity. He was one of only two Americans ever to have been awarded the "Freedom of the City of London" (the other was General Dwight D. Eisenhower.) A statute to George Peabody still stands in the heart of London's financial district. In the United States, he was awarded the Congressional Medal in 1867.
Primary Source: Elizabeth Schaaf, Archivist of the Peabody Institute
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