George Peabody

Associated Locations:

  • Peabody, Massachusetts, U.S.

Associated Dates:

  • February 18, 1795 – Born

George Peabody is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

“What I spent I had; what I kept I lost; what I gave away remains with me.”

– George Peabody

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. American Philanthropist 1795-1869The United States, from its earliest beginning, has been rescued by men of wealth whose patriotic devotion has saved the country from certain financial ruin. During the Revolutionary War, financier and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Robert Morris, borrowed money on his own credit and continued the difficult task of managing finances throughout the war. The financial confidence of America during the War of 1812 was sustained by Stephen Gerard, an American financier who purchased much of the depreciated stock of the Bank of the United States in London, thereby bolstering confidence. In the dark days of the panic of 1837, George Peabody, an American merchant living in London, used his wealth to sustain the United States. The country was in desperate financial straits, and the nation itself was near disgrace. Money was desperately needed but credit for the government was nowhere to be found. It had no funds to borrow at home and no foreign source was willing to give a loan under such dire circumstances. Peabody showed faith in his country by buying American bonds, even though he suffered a loss by doing so. His example was contagious and established confidence in the credibility of the bonds. When the crisis passed, the government wanted to honor Peabody for his valuable services, but he declined to accept any recognition. Peabody continued to transfer his business concerns to England, where he prospered exceedingly and grew very rich. Leaving his merchandise business he established the banking house of Peabody and Company.

Early Life

George Peabody was born in the south parish of Danvers, Massachusetts, 18 February 1795. He was able to attend school only until he was eleven years old, when he went to work in a grocery store. The store owner was a kindly gentleman by the name of Proctor, who treated him with much parental kindness and direction. Peabody wrote of these early years:

George Peabody

It was … in a very humble house, in the south parish, that I was born, and from the common schools of that parish, such as they were in 1803 to 1807, I obtained the limited education my parents’ means could afford; but to the principles there inculcated in childhood and early youth, I owe much of the foundation for such success as Heaven had been pleased to grant me during a long business life.

Early on in his life two indispensable qualities began to stand out in his work habits: integrity and perseverance. When he first went to work, his employer, Mr. Proctor, often bragged about a former employee who could in one day make six dozen leather whips. Peabody, a young boy of tremendous drive and perseverance, secretly desire to compete with the former employee’s record. One day when Mr. Proctor was gone, Peabody set to work and wove a large pile of eight dozen ropes. These he proudly displayed to his astonished employer upon his return. During his tenth year, Peabody lived with his grandparents, who lived in Vermont. During his visit, his grandfather desired to have a hillside cleared, which was overgrown with Sumac trees. This hillside included many acres, and the trees numbered some hundreds. George undertook to cut them down, and his grandfather gave him a week for the task. George sallied forth one morning, axe in hand, and by the evening of the same day the task was accomplished. The sun went down, and left not a Sumac standing to exult over its fallen companions. Another incident involved his collection a bad debt for his grandfather by repeated appeals to the incorrigible debtor. Peabody was employed in a dry goods store of his eldest brother. This employment was soon brought to an end by a devastating fire that caused the loss of the business by his brother. These were difficult times for merchants for England had placed embargoes on America and raided any ships she could find that carried supplies for her ports. These action led to the War of 1812. For some years Peabody worked at any position he could find. His father died when he was seventeen, so George left his native state in the company of his bankrupt uncle, hoping to better his lot elsewhere. They sailed by ship to the District of Columbia. Because of the uncle’s previous bankruptcy, young Peabody’s name was signed to all transactions. He was sharp enough to see one thing: business conducted in the manner left him in danger of being held responsible for all his uncle’s debts. He thought it wise to change his occupation and not have his name used carelessly.

Entering the Army

Soon after his arrival in Washington, D.C., the U.S. declared war on England. Young Peabody volunteered in an artillery company. He served at Fort Warburton on the Potomac. One of his companions while on duty was Francis Scott Key, the author of the U.S. national anthem, “The Stars Spangled Banner.”

Employment with Mr. Riggs

Young George Peabody

The war over, the nineteen-year-old-Peabody obtained employment with a Mr. Riggs of Baltimore. Here he managed a dry goods store. Mr. Riggs had observed the young man and knew that in spite of his youth, George was a wise investment. “The boy was alert and careful in business, with sound judgment, knowing when to make a deal and when to avoid one, when to spend and when to save, He had abundance of energy, he was industrious, honest, courteous, and had no bad habits.” Peabody proved worthy of his trust and soon the enterprise became Riggs and Peabody. Their business spread to the cities of Philadelphia and New York. The partnership lasted for fifteen years at which time Mr. Riggs retired from the company. The business had prospered under Peabody’s wise management and when Mr. Riggs left, they had both achieved considerable wealth. Peabody became the senior partner and Mr. Riggs’ nephew, the junior officer. The company now became know as Peabody, Riggs and Co. Peabody traveled the coast extensively in his business dealings. He worked many long hours and industry and integrity as always seemed to be his strongest assets. In 1827, he visited England for the first time and established many sound business contacts. Then in 1837, Peabody retired from the firm of Peabody, Riggs and Co. and sensing new and growing opportunities took up his permanent residence in England. He became a noted merchant, exchanging goods between America and England. Money was made at both ends and Peabody;s customers often left large sums of money with him in order to do future business. This practice eventually led to his going into the banking business. His bank was named simply George Peabody & Co. and dealt mainly in American securities. Through this banking establishment he became one of the richest men of his time. His bank was looked upon as one of the strongest in London and great amounts of money passed through its daily operations. In spite of his great wealth, Mr. Peabody was a man of very modest ways. He dressed plainly, he was courteous and generous of heart, Having never married, he lived in an ordinary bachelor’s apartment. Giving was early a part of his life. While yet a youth, he gave part of each pay check to support his mother and sister. In 1848, he helped the State of Maryland negotiate an important loan, which enabled the state to avoid an embarrassing financial situation.

Money given by Peabody

Home of George Peabody

On 4 July 1851, Peabody performed one of the greatest services a son of the republic and a grandson of Mother England could have rendered. He invited all the notables of England and the visitors from America to a grand celebration. The best entertainment was engaged at Peabody’s own expense. The large hall was appropriately decorated with flags of the two great countries and portraits of Queen Victoria and of Washington. Among the guests was the Duke of Wellington. This event was referred to as the marking of a new era in the feelings between England and America. For many years thereafter Peabody held grand celebrations on the fourth of July. About this time the World’s fair was being held in London with emphasis on inventions and products. Congress did not have the funds to support an American exhibit. Peabody supplied the necessary contacts and money for the Americans to show their talents. This was the first occasion that the world was able to see the great things America could do, and Peabody gave her that opportunity. This World’s Fair was acclaimed for heralding a new era of universal peace. In 1852, Peabody’s hometown of Danvers celebrated its centennial anniversary. Its most distinguished son, Peabody, was invited. Because he was unable to attend the celebration Peabody wrote a gracious letter of thanks and then enclosed a donation of $20,000 dollars with an additional $50,000 dollars to come. This money was to be used exclusively by his request “for the promotion of knowledge and morality.” Eventually he gave this fund $200,000. Peabody was wise enough to know that just giving money to the needy could lead to more harm than good. When he gave, he wisely stipulated how the money given was to be used. For instance, noting conditions of squalor that the poor of London lived in, he granted $2,500,000 for the tenant housing for these working poor. Queen Victoria offered him a title of nobility for his generosity but Peabody turned down the offer. In his letter of response he wrote: “I have been actuated by a deep sense of gratitude to God, who has blessed me with prosperity.” He gave ten thousand dollars for an expedition to the Arctic Seas in search of Sir John Pranklin who had failed to return. He gave $1,500,000 to found the Peabody Institute at Baltimore, which provided a free library, an academy of music, and an art gallery. Another $3,500,000 went to the South to help promote education after the devastation of the Civil War. In giving to the South he stated:

With my advancing years my attachment to my native land has but became more devoted. My hope and faith in its successful and glorious future have grown brighter and stronger and now, looking forward beyond my stay on earth,… I see our country united and prosperous, emerging from the clouds which still surround her, taking a higher rank among the nations, and becoming richer and more powerful than ever before…. Her moral and mental development should keep pace with her material growth.

He gave funds to the building of a memorial Congregational Church, as a tribute to his dear mother. In a grant to Philips Academy he wrote to this institution: “Philips Academy, which I am informed and believe, seeks to give … not only the highest mental discipline … but such a general training in manly virtues and in Christian morality and piety as all good men should approve … I trust will ever remain, free from all sectarian influence.”

Peabody Institute Library

When the conductor of an English train overcharged him on purpose, he reported him and had the man discharged. “It was not that I could not afford to pay the shilling,” he explained, “but the man was cheating many travelers to whom swindle would be oppressive.” Peabody did not save his money to be divided upon his death; he gave it away during his lifetime. His acts of generosity are reflected in all that is great in America today. He sought to give dignity and restore hope through his wealth. George Peabody died 4 November 1869. His body was laid in state in Westminster Abbey, and then was brought to America on a British royal man-of-war. Americans received their native son with highest respect and buried him with national honors. Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy. 1

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.
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