CHAPTER VIII. GEORGE PEABODY.
It is not often that men who pass their lives in the acquisition of money are able to retain the desire to give it to others who have had no share in the earning of it. In European countries, the wealthy merchant commonly uses his fortune for the purpose of founding a family, and securing sometimes a title of nobility. His wealth is entailed, that it may remain in his family and benefit remote generations; but few save those of his own blood enjoy any benefit from it, and the world is no better off for his life and success than if he had never been born. In America, instances of personal generosity and benevolence on a large scale are of more common occurrence than in the Old World. We have already borne witness to the munificence of Girard, Astor, Lawrence, Longworth, and Stewart, and shall yet present to the reader other instances of this kind in the remaining pages of this work. We have now to trace the career of one who far exceeded any of these in the extent and magnitude of his liberality, and who, while neglecting none connected with him by ties of blood, took the whole English-speaking race for his family, and by scattering his blessings far and wide on both sides of the Atlantic, has won a proud name
"As one who loved his fellow-men."
George Peabody came of an old English family, which traced its descent back to the year of our Lord 61, the days of the heroic Boadicea, down through the brilliant circle of the Knights of the Round Table, to Francis Peabody, who in 1635 went from St. Albans, in Hertfordshire, to the New World, and settled in Danvers, Massachusetts, where the subject of this memoir was born one hundred and sixty years later, on the 18th of February, 1795. The parents of George Peabody were poor, and hard work was the lot to which he was born, a lot necessary to develop his sterling qualities of mind and heart. He was possessed of a strong, vigorous constitution, and a quick, penetrating intellect. His education was limited, for he was taken from school at the age of eleven, and set to earning his living. Upon leaving school, he was apprenticed to a Mr. Sylvester Proctor, who kept a "country store" in Danvers. Here he worked hard and faithfully for four or five years, devoting himself, with an energy and determination surprising in one so young, to learn the first principles of business. His mind matured more rapidly than his body, and he was a man in intellect long before he was out of his teens. Having gained all the information it was possible to acquire in so small an establishment, he began to wish for a wider field for the exercise of his abilities. A retail grocery store was no longer the place for one possessed of such talents, and thoroughly conscious of them at such an early age, and it was natural that he should desire some more important and responsible position.
Accordingly, he left Mr. Proctor's employment, and spent a year with his maternal grandfather at Post Mills village, Thetford, Vermont. "George Peabody's year at Post Mills," says a writer who knew him, "must have been a year of intense quiet, with good examples always before him, and good advice whenever occasion called for it; for Mr. Dodge and his wife were both too shrewd to bore him with it needlessly.
"It was on his return from this visit that he spent a night at a tavern in Concord, N.H., and paid for his entertainment by sawing wood the next morning. That, however, must have been a piece of George's own voluntary economy, for Jeremiah Dodge would never have sent his grandson home to Danvers without the means of procuring the necessaries of life on the way, and still less, if possible, would Mrs. Dodge...."
"The interest with which Mr. Peabody remembered this visit to Post Mills is shown by his second visit so late in life, and his gift of a library—as large a library as that place needs. Of its influence on his subsequent career, of course, there is no record. Perhaps it was not much. But, at least, it gave him a good chance for quiet thinking, at an age when he needed it; and the labors of the farm may have been useful both to mind and body."
At the age of sixteen, in the year 1811, he went to Newburyport, and became a clerk in the store of his elder brother, David Peabody, who was engaged in the dry goods business at that place. He exhibited unusual capacity and promise in his calling, and soon drew upon himself the favorable attention of the merchants of the place. He was prompt, reliable, and energetic, and from the first established an enviable reputation for personal and professional integrity. It is said that he earned here the first money he ever made outside of his business. This was by writing ballots for the Federal party in Newburyport. Printed ballots had not then come into use.
He did not stay long in Newburyport, as a great fire, which burned up a considerable part of the town, destroyed his brother's store, and obliged him to seek employment elsewhere. He always retained a warm attachment to the place, however, an attachment which a resident of the town explains as follows:
"The cause of Mr. George Peabody's interest in Newburyport was not alone that he had lived here for a brief period, or that his relatives had lived here; but rather it was the warm friendship that had been shown him, which was, in fact, the basis of his subsequent prosperity. He left here in 1811, and returned in 1857. The forty-six intervening years had borne to the grave most of the persons with whom he had formed acquaintance. Among those he recognized were several who were in business, or clerks, on State Street in 1811,—Messrs. John Porter, Moses Kimball, Prescott Spaulding, and a few others. Mr. Spaulding was fourteen years older than Mr. Peabody, and in business when the latter was a clerk with his uncle, Colonel John Peabody. Mr. Peabody was here in 1857, on the day of the Agricultural Fair, and was walking in the procession with the late Mayor Davenport, when he saw Mr. Spaulding on the sidewalk, and at once left the procession to greet him.
"Mr. Spaulding had rendered him the greatest of services. When Mr. Peabody left Newburyport, he was under age, and not worth a dollar. Mr. Spaulding gave him letters of credit in Boston, through which he obtained two thousand dollars' worth of merchandise of Mr. James Reed, who was so favorably impressed with his appearance, that he subsequently gave him credit for a larger amount. This was his start in life, as he afterward acknowledged; for at a public entertainment in Boston, when his credit was good for any amount, and in any part of the world, Mr. Peabody laid his hand on Mr. Reed's shoulder, and said to those present, 'My friends, here is my first patron; and he is the man who sold me my first bill of goods.' After he was established in Georgetown, D.C., the first consignment made to him was by the late Francis Todd, of Newburyport. It was from these facts that Newburyport was always pleasant in his memory; and the donation he made to the Public Library was on his own suggestion, that he desired to do something of a public nature for our town."
From New England, George Peabody turned his face southward, and entered the employment of his uncle, Mr. John Peabody, who was engaged in the dry goods business in Georgetown, in the District of Columbia. He reached that place in the spring of 1812; but, as the second war with England broke out about the same time, was not able to give his immediate attention to business. He became a member of a volunteer company of artillery, which was stationed at Fort Warburton, but as no active duty was required of the company, he soon went back to his uncle's store. His uncle was a poor man and a bad manager, and for two years the business was conducted by George Peabody, and in his own name; but at the end of that time, seeing the business threatened with ruin by his uncle's incapacity, he resigned his situation, and entered the service of Mr. Elisha Riggs, who had just established a wholesale dry goods house in Georgetown. Mr. Riggs furnished the capital for the concern, and Mr. Peabody was given the management of it. Soon after this, the latter became a partner in the house. It is said that when Mr. Riggs invited Mr. Peabody to become his partner, the latter informed him that he could not legally assume the responsibilities of the business, as he was only nineteen years old. This was no objection in the mind of the merchant, as he wanted a young and active assistant, and had discerned in his boy-manager the qualities which never fail to win success.
The new business in which he was engaged consisted chiefly in the importation and sale of European goods, and consignments of dry goods from the northern cities. It extended over a wide field, and gave Mr. Peabody a fine opportunity for the display of his abilities. Mr. Riggs' friends blamed him very much for leaving his business so entirely in the hands of a boy of nineteen; but he had better proof than they that his affairs were not only in good but in the best hands, and he answered them all by telling them that time would justify his course. Mr. Peabody traveled extensively in establishing his business, often journeying into the wild and unsettled regions of the border States on horseback. He worked with energy and intelligence, and in 1815 the business was found to be so extensive that a removal to Baltimore became necessary. About this time a sort of irregular banking business was added to the operations of the house. This was chiefly the suggestion of Mr. Peabody, and proved a source of great profit.
Mr. Peabody quickly took a prominent rank among the merchants of Baltimore. His manner was frank and engaging, and won him many friends. He was noted for "a judgment quick and cautious, clear and sound, a decided purpose, a firm will, energetic and persevering industry, punctuality and fidelity in every engagement, justice and honor controlling every transaction, and courtesy—that true courtesy which springs from genuine kindness—presiding over the intercourse of life." His business continued to increase, and in 1822 it became necessary to establish branches in Philadelphia and New York, over which Mr. Peabody exercised a careful supervision. He was thoroughly familiar with every detail of his business, and never suffered his vigilance to relax, however competent might be the subordinates in the immediate charge of those details. In 1827 he went to England on business for his firm, and during the next ten years made frequent voyages between New York and London.
In 1829 Mr. Riggs withdrew from the firm, and Mr. Peabody become the actual head of the house, the style of the firm, which had previously been "Riggs & Peabody," being changed to "Peabody, Riggs & Co." The firm had for some time been the financial agents of the State of Maryland, and had managed the negotiations confided to them with great skill and success; and every year their banking department became more important and more profitable.
In 1836 Mr. Peabody determined to extend his business, which was already very large, to England, and to open a branch house in London. In 1837 he removed to that city for the purpose of taking charge of his house there, and from that time London became his home.
The summer of this year was marked by one of the most terrible commercial crises the United States has ever known. A large number of the banks suspended specie payment, and the majority of the mercantile houses were either ruined or in the greatest distress. Thousands of merchants, until then prosperous, were hopelessly ruined. "That great sympathetic nerve of the commercial world, credit," said Edward Everett, "as far as the United States was concerned, was for the time paralyzed. At that moment Mr. Peabody not only stood firm himself, but was the cause of firmness in others. There were not at that time, probably, half a dozen other men in Europe who, upon the subject of American securities, would have been listened to for a moment in the parlor of the Bank of England. But his judgment commanded respect; his integrity won back the reliance which men had been accustomed to place in American securities. The reproach in which they were all involved was gradually wiped away from those of a substantial character; and if, on this solid basis of unsuspected good faith, he reared his own prosperity, let it be remembered that at the same time he retrieved the credit of the State of Maryland, of which he was agent—performing that miracle by which the word of an honest man turns paper into gold."
The conduct of Mr. Peabody, as well as the evidences which he gave of his remarkable capacity for business, in this crisis, placed him among the foremost merchants of London. He carried on his business upon a large scale from his base of operations in that city. He bought British manufactures in all parts of England and shipped them to the United States. His vessels brought back in return all kinds of American produce which would command a ready sale in England. Profitable as these ventures were, there was another branch of his business much more remunerative to him. The merchants and manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic who consigned their goods to him frequently procured from him advances upon the goods long before they were sold. At other times they would leave large sums in his hands long after the goods were disposed of, knowing that they could draw whenever they needed, and that in the meanwhile their money was being so profitably invested that they were certain of a proper interest for their loans. Thus Mr. Peabody gradually became a banker, in which pursuit he was as successful as he had been as a merchant. In 1843 he withdrew from the house of Peabody, Riggs & Co., and established the house of "George Peabody & Company, of Warnford Court, City."
His dealings were chiefly with America, and in American securities, and he was always regarded as one of the best specimens of the American merchant ever seen in London. He was very proud of his country; and though he passed so many years of his life abroad, he never forgot that he was an American. In speaking of the manner in which he organized his business establishment, he once said: "I have endeavored, in the constitution of its members and the character of its business, to make it an American house, and to give it an American atmosphere; to furnish it with American journals; to make it a center of American news, and an agreeable place for my American friends visiting London."
It was his custom, from his first settlement in England, to celebrate the anniversary of the independence of his country by an entertainment at one of the public houses in the city, to which the most distinguished Americans in London were always invited, as were also many of the prominent men of Great Britain; and this dinner was only discontinued in deference to the general celebration of the day which was afterward instituted by the whole body of Americans resident in the British metropolis. In the year 1851, when it was thought that there would be no representation of the achievements of American skill and industry in the Great Exhibition of that year, from a lack of funds, Mr. Peabody generously supplied the sum of fifteen thousand dollars, which enabled the Commissioners to make a suitable display of the American contributions. Said the Hon. Edward Everett, alluding to this act:
"In most, perhaps in all other countries, this exhibition had been a government affair. Commissioners were appointed by authority to protect the interests of the exhibitors; and, what was more important, appropriations of money had been made to defray their expenses. No appropriations were made by Congress. Our exhibitors arrived friendless, some of them penniless, in the great commercial Babel of the world. They found the portion of the Crystal Palace assigned to our country unprepared for the specimens of art and industry which they had brought with them; naked and unadorned by the side of the neighboring arcades and galleries fitted up with elegance and splendor by the richest governments in Europe. The English press began to launch its too ready sarcasms at the sorry appearance which Brother Jonathan seemed likely to make; and all the exhibitors from this country, as well as those who felt an interest in their success, were disheartened. At this critical moment, our friend stepped forward. He did what Congress should have done. By liberal advances on his part, the American department was fitted up; and day after day, as some new product of American ingenuity and taste was added to the list,—McCormick's reaper, Colt's revolver, Powers's Greek Slave, Hobbs's unpickable lock, Hoe's wonderful printing presses, and Bond's more wonderful spring governor,—-it began to be suspected that Brother Jonathan was not quite so much of a simpleton as had been thought. He had contributed his full share, if not to the splendor, at least to the utilities of the exhibition. In fact, the leading journal at London, with a magnanimity which did it honor, admitted that England had derived more real benefit from the contributions of the United States than from those of any other country."
As has been said, Mr. Peabody made the bulk of his colossal fortune in the banking business. He had a firm faith in American securities, and dealt in them largely, and with confidence. His business instinct was remarkable, his judgment in mercantile and financial matters almost infallible, and he made few mistakes. His course was now onward and upward, and each year marked an increase of his wealth. His business operations were conducted in pursuance of a rigid system which was never relaxed. To the very close of his life he never abandoned the exact or business-like manner in which he sought to make money. He gave away millions with a generosity never excelled, yet he could be exacting to a penny in the fulfillment of a contract.
In his youth he contracted habits of economy, and these he retained to the last. Being unmarried, he did not subject himself to the expense of a complete domestic establishment, but lived in chambers, and entertained his friends at his club or at a coffee-house. His habits were simple in every respect, and he was often seen making his dinner on a mutton-chop at a table laden (at his cost) with the most sumptuous and tempting viands. His personal expenses for ten years did not average three thousand dollars per annum.
The conductor on an English railway once overcharged him a shilling for fare. He promptly complained to the directors, and had the man discharged. "Not," said he, "that I could not afford to pay the shilling, but the man was cheating many travelers to whom the swindle would be offensive."
Several years ago he chanced to ride in a hack in Salem, Massachusetts, and upon reaching his destination tendered the driver his usual fee of fifty cents.
"Here's your change, sir," said the man, handing him back fifteen cents.
"Change!" exclaimed Mr. Peabody; "why, I'm not entitled to any."
"Yes, you are; I don't charge but thirty-five cents for a ride in my hack."
"How do you live, then?"
"By fair dealing, sir. I don't believe in making a man pay more than a thing is worth just because I have an opportunity."
Mr. Peabody was so much pleased with this reply, that as long as he remained in Salem he sought this man out and gave him his custom.
In his dress Mr. Peabody was simple and unostentatious. He was scrupulously neat and tasteful, but there was nothing about him to indicate his vast wealth. He seldom wore any jewelry, using merely a black band for his watch-guard. Display of all kinds he abominated.
He made several visits to his native country during his last residence in London, and commemorated each one of them by acts of princely munificence. He gave large sums to the cause of education, and to religious and charitable objects, and made each one of his near kindred wealthy. None of his relatives received less than one hundred thousand dollars, and some were given as much as three times that sum. He gave immense sums to the poor of London, and became their benefactor to such an extent that Queen Victoria sent him her portrait, which she had caused to be executed for him at a cost of over forty thousand dollars, in token of her appreciation of his services in behalf of the poor of her realm.
Mr. Peabody made another visit to the United States in 1866, and upon this occasion added large sums to many of the donations he had already made in this country. He remained here until May, 1867, when he returned to England. He came back in June, 1869, but soon sailed again for England. His health had become very feeble, and it was his belief that it would be better in the atmosphere of London, to which he had been so long accustomed. His hope of recovery was vain. He failed to rally upon reaching London, and died in that city on the 4th of November, 1869.
The news of his death created a profound sadness on both sides of the Atlantic, for his native and his adopted country alike revered him as a benefactor. The Queen caused his body to be placed in a vault in Westminster Abbey, amidst the greatest and noblest of her kingdom, until all was in readiness for its transportation to the United States in a royal man-of-war. The Congress of the United States authorized the President to make such arrangements for the reception of the body as he should deem necessary. Sovereigns, statesmen, and warriors united to do homage to the mortal remains of this plain, simple man, who, beginning life a poor boy, and never departing from the character of an unassuming citizen, had made humanity his debtor by his generosity and goodness. He was borne across the ocean with kingly honors, two great nations acting as chief mourners, and then, when the pomp and the splendor of the occasion were ended, they laid him down in his native earth by the side of the mother from whom he had imbibed those principles of integrity and goodness which were the foundation of his fame and fortune.
It is impossible to obtain an accurate statement of the donations made by Mr. Peabody to the objects which enlisted his sympathy. In addition to those mentioned in the list below, he gave away for various public purposes sums ranging from two hundred and fifty to one thousand dollars, and extending back as far as the year 1835. He divided among his relatives the sum of about three millions of dollars, giving them a portion during his last visit to this country, and leaving them the remainder at his death.
The following is a statement of his more important donations during his life, including the bequests contained in his last will and testament:
The life of such a man affords lessons full of hope and encouragement to others. In 1856, when on a visit to Danvers, now named Peabody, in honor of him, its most distinguished son and greatest benefactor, he said:
"Though Providence has granted me an unvaried and unusual success in the pursuit of fortune in other lands, I am still in heart the humble boy who left yonder unpretending dwelling. There is not a youth within the sound of my voice whose early opportunities and advantages are not very much greater than were my own, and I have since achieved nothing that is impossible to the most humble boy among you."