The First Great Cheerful Giver

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In a day when it is no secret that the very rich can, and do, practice philanthropy at bargain rates—about nine cents on the dollar, or, by a judicious transfer of stocks, paintings, or incunabula, bought cheap and appraised dear, at no cents on the dollar; or, indeed, with even better luck, at a profit—it requires a historical perspective to understand the mood in which the Western world reacted to the death in London of George Peabody on November 4, 1869. As a man who began to combine large-scale acquisition with large-scale distribution in the i85o’s, Peabody was the first great American philanthropist. At a time when the Astors, far richer than he, were giving little away, he was disposing of millions. Peter Cooper, to be sure, built and endowed The Cooper Union “for the advancement of science and art” during this decade, but his total bill was $900,000—a fraction of Peabody’s benefactions. Peabody munificently founded free libraries, museums, lecture halls, and musical conservatories, and he established the country’s first true foundation—the Peabody Education Fund, which helped put southern education on its feet after the Civil War. In the view of the late Dr. Abraham Flexner, an expert on funds and foundations, it was “the pioneer [fund] in the United States in combining private and unofficial with public and official endeavor. … To a considerable extent [it] determined the course that future educational benefactions would take.” It was after a conversation with Peabody on the pleasures of giving money away that Johns Hopkins made out a will leaving seven million dollars for a university and hospital. The trail that Peabody blazed was later followed, more lavishly but relatively no more generously, by Mrs. Russell Sage, Andrew Carnegie, Julius Rosenwald, the Fords, the Guggenheims, and the Rockefellers.

George Peabody was born in 1795 in South Danvers, Massachusetts, nineteen miles north of Boston, toward the end of an astrological period—on February 18—that all fellow Aquarians (socially minded, eager to improve the lot of the human race) will recognize as appropriate. During his lifetime, out of a fortune of approximately fourteen million dollars, he gave away some nine million for public purposes—without, of course, a penny of tax deduction for his largesse. He had made a great deal of his money in England, where he lived for the last three decades of his life, and he gave a great deal of it away in England; but he also gave much away in America, which he continued to think of as his home, never relinquishing his American citizenship.

The Peabody benefactions were not only generous; they were thoughtfully planned and thoughtfully set up. Stemming from principle rather than impulse, they were calculated to help people help themselves and to prevent poverty rather than cure it. And they were executed by able men, chosen by the founder. In England, for example, the early trustees of the £500,000 Peabody Donation Fund—established to build homes for the poor in London—included Charles Francis Adams, the American minister to Great Britain; Lord Stanley, the Postmaster General; and Junius Spencer Morgan, a Peabody partner in London who was the father of the first John Pierpont Morgan. In America, where the Peabody Education Fund had to work in a war-torn area sensitive to northerners, the Fund’s original trustees were drawn from North and South alike and included General Grant, Admiral Farragut, and the governors of New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, and South Carolina. Among successor trustees were Presidents Hayes, Cleveland, McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt; J. P. Morgan, Anthony J. Drexel, Joseph H. Choate, and Bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts. The Fund’s first general agent, or administrator, was Dr. Barnas Sears, who relinquished the presidency of Brown University to assume this post, and of whom the Dictionary of American Biography reports: His inauguration of the work for which the Fund was devised was perhaps the most important achievement of his career. The specific recommendations regarding the ends to be sought and the methods to be employed contained in his first report became the stereotyped policy of the trustees. In carrying it out Sears met a difficult and delicate situation with a patience, tact, and wisdom that won confidence and support in the South and ensured success.