American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

A Princely Merchant

Many years ago a slender lad of seventeen left his home in Massachusetts and went to Georgetown, District of Columbia, to clerk in his uncle's store. No one who saw him then would have guessed that he would ever become one of the world's famous men. Yet his pleasant manners and his quiet ways made him the favorite of all who knew him.

"I do believe that Fortune is in love with my nephew George," said the uncle. "Why, he seems to turn everything to good account, and whatever he touches prospers."

But Fortune, even if she were in love with him, had not endowed him with wealth and fine opportunities to begin with. His school days had ended in his eleventh year, and since then he had been making his own way. For four years he had swept floors, washed windows, and carried packages for a grocer in his native town of Danvers. Then he had gone out to seek a larger business elsewhere. And at length we find him in his uncle's store selling broadcloth and silk, and very soon managing the whole business.

He seemed to have a natural insight into the proper methods of conducting any commercial enterprise. He knew what goods would be most in demand at a given time; he knew when to buy and when to sell. He was honest in all his dealings, and polite and accommodating to every one, whether young or old, rich or poor. To his customers he was always considerate, never trying to persuade them to buy what they did not want.

Of course, other merchants soon learned of George Peabody's engaging ways and his wonderful aptitude for business. Elisha Riggs offered to form a partnership with him.

"I will supply the capital," he said, "and you may conduct the business. If there are any profits, we will share them equally."

"But I am only a boy, Mr. Riggs," said young Peabody. "I am not quite nineteen."

"You are the man for the business," answered Mr. Riggs.

Accordingly the firm of Riggs & Peabody was formed. Wholesale drapers, they called themselves, and their business prospered from the start. With such a manager as George Peabody, there could be no such word as fail. The next year they removed to Baltimore, and soon afterward they established branch houses in Philadelphia and New York.

In 1826 Mr. Riggs retired, and George Peabody, at the age of thirty-one, found himself the senior partner in a very large and profitable business. The management of his affairs now called him often to London, and he soon saw that much time could be saved and many inconveniences avoided by establishing his headquarters there. In 1837, therefore, he took up his abode in England. He soon withdrew from the firm of Peabody, Riggs & Co., and established himself in London as a banker and commission agent.

He was paving the way for the performance of many golden deeds.

In 1852, when a ship was being fitted out is New York to visit the Arctic seas in search of Sir John Franklin, Mr. Peabody gave ten thousand dollars to defray the expenses of the voyage. In the following year he made a large gift of his native town for the purpose of founding there an institute and a library for the benefit of the people. From that time till the day of his death, he was always giving, giving. The list of his benefactions is very long.

He gave a million dollars to found and endow an institution for science in Baltimore. To many colleges and libraries in this country he gave various sums ranging from five thousand to half a million dollars. To the Southern Educational Fund he gave two-and-a-half million dollars to be used for the education of the poor in the South. And to the city of London he gave two-and-a-half million dollars for the erection of dwelling houses for poor workingmen. For this last gift the Queen sent him her thanks, and declared it to be "a noble act of more than princely munificence."

In recognition of his good deeds, the people attempted in various ways to express their gratitude. The corporation of London granted him the Freedom of the City, an honor seldom conferred, except upon the greatest of men. Arrangements were also made for the erection of his statue in a public place. He received all honors with much modesty; and when as a mark of esteem he was asked to be the guest of honor at a reception or a public meeting, he gently declined. Only once did he appear in public in London, and that was at the close of an exhibition by the working-classes in 1866.

When seventy-one years of age he made preparations to pay a visit to his native land. Learning of this, the Queen proposed to honor him by making him a baronet, but he declined. She offered to make him a Knight of the Order of the Bath, but he declined that honor also, feeling that as an American he could not accept any title of nobility. Then the question was asked him, "Since you will not receive these honors, is there not some gift that the Queen may bestow in order to express her esteem and gratitude?"

He pondered a moment, and then answered, "Yes, there is one gift which I would gratefully receive and appreciate. It is a letter from the Queen of England, which I may carry across the Atlantic and deposit there as a memorial from one of her most faithful admirers."

A few days later this letter was received. He carried it to American and deposited it with a portrait of the Queen in the Peabody Institute at Danvers.

When George Peabody died in 1869, the people of two continents mourned for him. His works live after him, and the good which they do increases with each passing year. Generation after generation will profit by his beneficence, and his name will long be remembered as that of one who loved his fellow-men.

Some will say that without great natural aptitude and many advantages, no one can achieve the success of George Peabody. Listen to what he himself said at the dedication of the Peabody Institute at Danvers;—

"There is not a youth within the sound of my voice whose early opportunities and advantages are not very much better than mine were. I have achieved nothing that is impossible to the most humble boy among you. Steadfast and undeviating truth, fearless and straightforward integrity, and an honor unsullied by an unworthy word or action make their possessor greater than worldly success."