Thirty Years of the Peabody Education Fund

ON the 7th of February, 1867, George Peabody, then on a visit to Washington, addressed a letter to sixteen of his compatriots, proposing to make a generous gift, to supply, in some degree, “ the educational needs of those portions of our beloved country which have suffered from the destructive ravages and the not less disastrous consequences of civil war.” With these simple words he initiated a work which has proved to be of inestimable value to the Southern States, not so much because of the large sums that have annually been expended from the income as because of the stimulus given to local efforts for the promotion of public instruction. Most of the details of the proposed establishment were left to the board of trustees, but there was one provision which was eminently characteristic of Mr. Peabody’s foresight and consideration. Was this fund to be perpetual or limited in duration ; and if limited, by what conditions should its limitations be determined ? His directions were very simple. After the lapse of thirty years, the trustees, by a two - thirds vote, might decide whether the trust should be closed or not. This period has now come, and, after careful deliberation, the trustees, at their last annual meeting (October 7, 1896), resolved that the distribution of the principal of the fund “ be deferred for the present.” This action insures the continuance of the work of the fund, on its present basis, until a different conclusion shall be reached ; and it relieves many individuals, institutions, and communities from anxiety lest the Peabody aid should be withdrawn. The thirtieth anniversary and this noteworthy decision suggest an examination of the results that have attended this unique endowment. It may not be amiss, at the same time, to acquaint the generation that has come into active life since the close of the war with some of the circumstances, already historical, of Mr. Peabody’s generosity.

In order to understand the operations of this fund, which is without a parallel in any country, it will be useful to consider for a moment the personality of its administrators ; for to them large discretion was given by the founder, and they have acted without any interference from civil or ecclesiastical control.

There is only one survivor of the board that was designated by Mr. Peabody, Hon. W. M. Evarts, and he is now the presiding officer. His predecessor in the chair, through the three decades, was Hon. Robert C. Winthrop, who devoted to the office his varied culture, his broad patriotism, and his personal influence, with such fidelity and industry that his name will always be associated with George Peabody’s. He was almost always present at the meetings of the board ; he maintained a frequent correspondence with the general agents; he kept up a personal acquaintance with the leaders of opinion in the North and in the South; and he inspired all whom he met with a sense of the dignity and value of the work with which this trust was concerned.

By his selection of trustees, Mr. Peabody made it clear that he wished to place the control of the fund in the hands of men who could, as statesmen, consider the condition of affairs in every part of the country. In the board, as he constituted it, there was not a single college president or professor, not a superintendent of instruction, nor a professional teacher, nor any exponent of science or scholarship. Nor was there any noteworthy religious character given to the board, one clergyman only having been selected. There were no ex officio members. Several men of financial ability were included among his nominees, but as a group the trustees were men who had been tried in public life, and who had been accustomed to look at the interests of the country in their broad aspects, not with provincial or sectional jealousy. It must be remembered, too, that the fires of the Civil War were then but just extinguished ; the embers were still glowing. “ Reconstruction ” was beginning, with all the dread that heated tempers on both sides could produce. General Grant and Admiral Farragut were trustees, but “the other side” was not “left out,” Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Louisiana having representatives, as well as Maryland and the District of Columbia. Three trustees came from Massachusetts, and that has continued to be the recognition given to Mr. Peabody’s native State, in accordance with the wish that he expressed informally to Mr. Winthrop.

Vacancies in the board have been filled by coöptation. Quite early, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite was elected a member, and after his death his successor in that high judicial station was chosen to fill the vacancy. Three Presidents of the United States have been members of the board. Not long ago Bishop Whipple told the writer the following incident to illustrate two points: first, the respect paid to President Hayes by the South (notwithstanding the animadversions cast upon him at the beginning of his administration); and second, the spirit that animated the trustees in filling a vacancy. The Peabody trustees have an unwritten rule that when a Southern member dies the Southern trustees nominate a Southern man to fill the vacancy ; and if a Northern trustee dies, the Northern men nominate. There was a vacancy among the Southern trustees. When the time came to fill it, Hon. A. H. H. Stuart, of Virginia, in behalf of his colleagues from the South, said that they desired to nominate Rutherford B. Hayes, — “ for his high Christian character and his evenhanded justice to the South.” So President Hayes was chosen, and thus began that period of devotion to the educational and philanthropic affairs of the country which was characteristic of the closing years of his life.

Mr. Peabody’s wishes were expressed in many ways. A perusal of his various letters shows that his dominant idea was to benefit the entire country by promoting education in those regions which had been impoverished by the war. These are among his phrases : —

“ I hope that all the States included in that part of our country which is suffering from the results of the recent war may, sooner or later, according to their needs, receive more or less of the benefit of the fund.”

“The income thereof is to be used and applied, in your discretion, for the promotion and encouragement of intellectual, moral, or industrial education among the young of the more destitute portions of the Southern and Southwestern States of our Union ; my purpose being that the benefits intended shall be distributed among the entire population, without other distinction than their needs and the opportunities of usefulness to them.”

“ At the same time, I must not omit to congratulate you, and all who have at heart the best interests of this educational enterprise, upon your obtaining the highly valuable services of Dr. Sears as your general agent, — services valuable not merely in the organization of schools and of a system of public education, but in the good effect which his conciliatory and sympathizing course has had wherever he has met or become associated with the communities of the South in social or business relations.”

“ It was most necessary that, at the outset, those States and portions of States which had suffered most from the ravages of war, and were most destitute of educational means and privileges, should be first and specially aided.”

Now, most men, in such a political crisis, would have proceeded in an aggressive spirit, if they were Northerners ; in an exclusive spirit, if they were Southerners. But George Peabody avoided the net of philanthropic enthusiasm which would have made his board another missionary association. He treated the subject of education as a concern of the state ; as a matter of profound importance to every commonwealth ; as an obligation which could not be imposed on any community by outsiders, but which might be encouraged and developed by extraneous financial subsidies. Consequently, for thirty years the work of the Peabody board has been that of statesmen.

One of the most characteristic touches in Mr. Peabody’s bounty was his hospitality. He believed that good will was promoted by the breaking of bread, and accordingly he initiated his good work by a good dinner. Conforming to his expressed wishes, the trustees, at every annual meeting, take dinner together, and they are requested to bring with them the ladies of their households.

The incidental good that has come from this unrestrained and friendly intercourse of influential men, brought together by a common purpose from widely separated parts of the country, cannot be too highly estimated. There are no speeches on these social occasions. Toward the end of the evening the chairman proposes as a sentiment, “ The Memory of the Founder,” which the company honor, standing in silence. Since Mr. Winthrop’s death his name has been associated with that of Mr. Peabody. To which of the two patriots belongs the credit of having suggested the methods employed by the organization is not known to the writer of this paper. It is his belief that the conception of the plan was Mr. Peabody’s, and that many of the minor regulations are entirely due to him ; and on the other hand, that Mr. Winthrop’s most skillful pen gave form to the organization, and that his knowledge of men selected the agents. In all this there was such rare skill that the machinery of a new and complex organization moved smoothly at once, and has continued so to do during thirty years. As time goes on, and the reminiscences and memoirs of the men of the last generation are made public, I have no doubt that the opinion expressed by Dr. Mayo respecting Mr. Winthrop’s service will be confirmed and acknowledged. “ No man in America,” he said, “ was better qualified in every way than Robert C. Winthrop for the presidency of this trust. So there was no mistake made when George Peabody took Robert C. Winthrop into his confidence, on the autumn day when he sat in his hall at Brookline, under the portrait of Benjamin Franklin, and unfolded the inspiring record of his own contemplated beneficence, in the way of 4 aid and comfort’ to education, — a benefaction for thoughtful charity, variety, and practical utility still unrivaled even by the magnificent bequests of which it was the precursor and often the suggestion.”

At the outset, Dr. Barnas Sears was chosen the active manager of the fund. He was then sixty-five years of age, and had acquired high distinction as a scholar and teacher. He entered upon the work with complete devotion, resigned his post in Providence at the head of Brown University (which he had held for twelve years), removed his residence to the South, and by private interviews and public conferences, by letters, reports, and addresses, acquired the confidence and coöperation of the leading men in every Southern State.

When his death occurred, Dr. J. L. M. Curry was at once selected to fill the place. Like Dr. Sears, he had been a college professor and president, but he had two additional qualifications. He was a Southerner, identified by birth, education, and military service with the Southern States. More than that, he had been in public life, as a member of both the Confederate and Federal Congresses. He believed as heartily as Dr. Sears in the importance of public education, and carried on without a break the work entrusted to him. Fortunately, after a while, he became also the agent of the Slater fund, so that the operations of these two endowments have been absolutely harmonious.

The published papers of the fund contain innumerable tributes to its value. The United States Commissioner of Education says that the wisdom displayed in the administration of the fund “ could not be surpassed in the history of endowments.” The State Superintendent in Virginia writes these words : “Your work is the inspiration of public education in the South. It has no parallel in history.” From Louisiana we have this comprehensive tribute : 44 We can think of no part of our public school system which has not been warmed into life, nursed. and developed by Peabody counsel and financial aid.”

Noteworthy also is the proposal made to erect in Washington a statue commemorative of Peabody, to be paid for by contributions from the States that have received the benefit of this endowment. Correspondence upon this subject is now in progress among the governors, looking toward united legislative appropriations.

More remarkable indications of the good that has been accomplished may be found in the statistics brought together by Dr. Curry, which are easily accessible to those who wish for them. Without introducing upon these pages the extensive columns of figures that he has marshaled, by a few examples we may show what changes have come about in twenty years. In 1870 the white illiterates of twelve Southern States were twenty-five per cent; now they are sixteen. The colored illiterates diminished in the same period from eighty-seven to sixty-two per cent. Virginia in 1870 did not have fiftyone thousand pupils in public schools; now there are three hundred and fiftysix thousand. In 1870 the revenues of public instruction in Georgia were $432,283 ; in 1894 they were more than quadrupled. Texas reported in 1871 $136,097 as the total fund available for public schools; in 1894—95 almost $2,000,000.

The quality of the schools has improved, and this is due in no small degree to the policy, introduced by Dr. Sears and perpetuated by Dr. Curry, of fostering normal schools and teachers’ institutes. The Peabody Normal College, identified with the University of Nashville, stands foremost among these agencies. For several years past more than five hundred scholars have been here enrolled. Last year the maximum figure was reached (575), and the pupils came from eighteen States. Its influence for good has been steady, powerful, and widespread.

In all these operations it has been the policy of the administrators of the fund to refrain from instituting schools, but to contribute to their maintenance. They have thus quickened the activities of every Southern community. Dr. Curry, in his latest survey (1896), speaks exultingly of the results : —

“ Perhaps the most significant fact in connection with the aims and purposes of the trust was that at its origin not a single Southern State within the field of its operations had a system of free public schools. The illiteracy of the inhabitants was appalling, and by no means confined to ‘ the freedmen,’ but embraced a large per cent of the white population. The trustees decided — and most wisely — to make a vigorous and persistent effort to induce these States to include free and universal education among their permanent obligations, and the effort was rewarded by early success. During the thirty years about $2,400,000 have been spent, as the income of the $2,000,000 left by Mr. Peabody, in connection with school authorities of cities and States, and the fund has been a constant educator in public policy, and, by the simple rule of helping those who help themselves, has led States and cities and towns to take hold of their own problems of illiteracy and recognize the truth of the highest axiom in educational statesmanship, that the stability of our free institutions rests upon public schools, organized and controlled by civil authority and supported by a levy on property.”

There is not the slightest doubt that the success of Mr. Peabody’s education fund was a potent influence upon the mind of Mr. John F. Slater, of Connecticut, who gave a fund of one million dollars for the uplifting and education of the freedmen. In his declaration of principles he distinctly refers to Mr. Peabody’s gift, and two members of the Peabody board1 were selected to administer the new trust. Not long after Mr. Slater’s gift, another citizen of Connecticut, Daniel Hand, gave the sum of one million dollars to the American Missionary Association for kindred educational purposes.

Nor are these the only instances of Mr. Peabody’s influence upon other benefactors. The university and the hospital founded by Johns Hopkins in Baltimore followed quickly after the foundation of the Peabody Institute in that city, and a few years later the treasurer of the Institute established the Enoch Pratt Free Lending Library. It may not be possible to trace with precision the motives which induced these gifts, but there are reasons to believe that the example of George Peabody was in the eye of both these generous donors.

The review that has been made illustrates several points pertaining to public benefactions : —

The value of broad, comprehensive, far-reaching views, as distinguished from temporary, provincial, or personal preferences.

The services that may be secured for the administration of a great fund, without compensation, from men of the highest character and of great experience in the conduct of affairs.

The wisdom of concentrating authority in the hands of a single strong, sensible executive officer, who is to be held responsible for the application of general principles to particular cases.

The advantage of bestowing gifts in such a way as to encourage, and not supersede, outlays and efforts on the part of the recipients.

The possibility of securing good will among those who have been estranged from one another, by enlisting both sides in the promotion of special measures for the public welfare.

D. C. Gilman.

  1. President Hayes and Chief Justice Waite.