- Historic Sites
“old Peabo” And The School
In founding Groton, Endicott Peabody was sure that muscular Christianity would protect boys from the perils of loaferism
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
One of the most illustrious of these benevolent despots was the Reverend Endicott Peabody, who founded Groton School in 1884 and served it with all his might and main for over half a century. By the time he finally turned over his task to younger hands in 1940, at the age of eighty-three, he had become an American version of the legendary Dr. Arnold of Rugby. And his zealously guarded little kingdom of several hundred sylvan acres, some forty miles northwest of Boston, had achieved national renown as a preserve of wealth and privilege.
Peabody’s personal fame was largely confined to his own small world, except for one disquieting spell in the 1930’s when one of his “old boys” went to the White House and another to Sing Sing. But within the realm of the fashionable boarding school, vibrations from his formidable presence can still be felt, and his fervently simplistic ideals, however anachronistic, continue to influence the education of sons of the rich and well connected, at Groton as well as at similar schools.
For all his influence, Peabody was not so much an original thinker as he was a determined practitioner of methods that dated back to the Italian Renaissance. He insisted upon Christian conduct, and he stressed vigorous exercise and spartan living. His major educational precept was that every minute of a boy’s waking hours must be filled with study, religious devotions, or strenuous exercise. Above all, the slightest opportunity for that insidious form of idleness known as loafing must be avoided like the plague. “The curse of American … school life is loafing,” he once said in a speech. “… The tone of loafers is always low. You can avoid that easily in a school, because you have the great advantage of athletics… to run a school on a high plane of morality without athletics would be a practical impossibility … the best thing for a boy is to work hard … to play hard … and then, when the end of the day has come, to be so tired that he wants to go to bed and go to sleep. That is the healthy and good way for a boy to live.”
The efficacy of what the Victorians called “muscular Christianity” as a curb on the explosive force of adolescent sexual impulses—which was of course what the rector was talking about—can no longer be accepted quite so optimistically as in that more naive day. Even then, it was a moot question as to whether the success of Groton in instilling its boys with “manly, Christian character” was due as much to the gospel of sheer exhaustion as to the more painful methods of the prefect-monitor system. The latter was an extremely effective arrangement in which swift and vigorous punishment was inflicted by older boys upon younger boys who strayed from the school’s approved moral code. But whatever the means, the same benign end was achieved: in the beehive of tiny cubicles in which the boys slept, under the watchful eyes of lordly prefects, the insidious influences of “loaferism” and sex were, presumably, nipped in the bud.
Boys summoned to appear before the rector would approach him warily in his study. “You are looking for trouble?” he would bark. “Well, here I am.” To such unfortunates it seemed inconceivable that the rector had ever been guilty of boyish misdemeanors himself. But in fact, one of his great assets as a headmaster was that he had never ceased to be a boy, one who had committed his proper share of boyish mischief.
Young “Cotty” Peabody started out to be an investment banker, a calling to which his affluent family background was more conducive than schoolmastering. The Peabodys of Salem, Massachusetts, were a numerous old New England tribe with Puritan forefathers dating back to 1635. In Salem, the saying went that you were either a “Peabody, or nobody.” His father, Samuel Endicott Peabody, was a partner in J. S. Morgan & Co., the American-owned London banking house from which the mighty J. P. Morgan & Co. in New York was descended. Cotty was educated at Cheltenham, a British public school, and at Cambridge University.
After five years at Cheltenham, Cotty was a strapping six-footer who excelled at games, and he had a glorious time at Cambridge, where he rowed and played cricket and made friendships that lasted a lifetime. He also studied hard and passed his law examinations with honors. But the great event of his life at Cambridge was a profound religious awakening. He was so impressed by the grandeur of the Church of England and so deeply moved by its emotional warmth that he deserted the sober, rational Unitarian faith of proper Bostonians, in which he had been raised, to become a devout Episcopalian. The shock of conversion was so powerful that, before leaving Cambridge, he even had wistful thoughts of entering the ministry.
But when he returned to his old Salem-Boston home grounds in 1880, at the age of twenty-three, his future seemed preordained. Handsome, stalwart young Mr. Endicott Peabody, who charmed the young ladies of Boston with his adorable English accent, went dutifully to work for Lee, Higginson & Co., the prestigious investment banking firm founded by his mother’s father, John Cabot Lee. The path ahead to an early partnership in his grandfather’s old firm was smooth and secure. Yet within a year he discovered “that it did not promise to bring into my life the … satisfaction I hoped would be there and the thought of entering the ministry … became more vivid.” After a period of intense soul-searching, he enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School at Cambridge, Massachusetts.