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Overrated & Underrated

June 2024
1min read

Most Overrated Philanthropist:

Elihu Yale. In 1701 the Reverend James Pierpont (an ancestor of J. P. Morgan), minister of the First Church, in New Haven, pushed the General Court of Connecticut to charter a college. He thought that the colony should not be dependent on Harvard for training its ministers. The college operated in the various homes of its tutors for several years, and it was only when Jeremiah Dummer, the colony’s agent in London, donated an estimated one thousand books, a very substantial library in the early eighteenth century, that it was decided to build a permanent campus.

Elihu Yale, who made an enormous fortune as an East India Company official, had been born in Boston but at the age of three left America never to return. At Dummer’s request, he donated some books, some East India Company goods that were sold for 562 pounds 12 shillings, and a portrait of King George I. At the school’s first commencement on its new campus, in 1718, the trustees referred to it as Yale College, a name made official when the legislature granted a new charter in 1745.

Surely, never has so much immortality been purchased for so paltry an eleemosynary sum. One wonders if the only reason it was named Yale College was that the trustees, looking over their collective shoulder at Harvard, couldn’t quite bring themselves to name it Dummer College.

Most Underrated Philanthropist:

George Peabody. Born poor in what is now Peabody, Massachusetts, he became an immensely successful private banker in London. A lifelong bachelor, he began giving his money away in vast amounts long before his death, and before it became fashionable for the rich to do so. His benefactions included money to establish the Peabody Institute in Baltimore; the Peabody Institute in Peabody, Massachusetts; the Peabody museums at Harvard and Yale (at the latter his nephew Othniel C. March established a great collection of dinosaur fossils); and the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem, Massachusetts. He gave $2.5 million to the city of London for workers’ housing and $3.5 million to the Peabody Education Fund to help schools in the South. This last donation anticipated the great philanthropic foundations of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford. Indeed, it was the model for them.

Peabody is unjustly forgotten today, but his unprecedented generosity was greatly appreciated in his own time. The British erected a statue to him on the east side of the Royal Exchange, and Queen Victoria offered him a baronetcy, which he modestly refused. When he died, in 1869, his funeral was held at Westminster Abbey and his body returned to this country on HMS Monarch , escorted by American and French warships.

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