the Concord MagazineJune/July '99

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Transcendentalist Activist

By Leslie Perrin Wilson Curator of the Special Collections of the Concord Public Library. Part I of a Three-Part Series. Coming later: Part II - Focus on Elizabeth Peabody's Foreign Library. Part III - Elizabeth Peabody's Views on Language and History

(click on on photos for larger view)

E.L. PeabodyElizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804-1894) devoted her long and full life to the expression of Transcendental idealism in a variety of forms. Greatly admired by some of her contemporaries as a model of passionate commitment, sympathy, and learning, she was dismissed by others as meddlesome and absent-minded. Abolitionist minister Theodore Parker praised her as "a woman of most astonishing powers ... many-sidedness and largeness of soul ... rare qualities of head and heart ... A good analyst of character, a free spirit, kind, generous, noble." Novelist Henry James, on the other hand, caricatured her mercilessly as Miss Birdseye in The Bostonians.

Teacher and educational reformer, founder of the kindergarten in America, abolitionist, opponent of European autocratic despotism, friend of political refugees, advocate of Native American rights and education, of woman's suffrage, and of world peace, Miss Peabody worked unceasingly toward the improvement of society. In the 1840s, she ran a circulating library and bookstore at 13 West Street in Boston, providing the Transcendentalists (see previous article on Transcendentalism here) with a gathering place and with volumes of foreign literature and philosophy. Margaret Fuller conducted her famous "conversations" at 13 West Street. The Brook Farm utopian community was planned there. Moreover, Elizabeth Peabody was a publisher at a time when few women were involved in that business. Among the titles issued under her name were Dr. William Ellery Channing's Emancipation (1840), Hawthorne's Grandfather's Chair, Famous Old People, and Liberty Tree (1841), two of the four volumes of the Transcendental periodical the Dial (1842 and 1843), and the short-lived Aesthetic Papers (1849), which included the first appearance in print of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. Miss Peabody was also a gifted linguist, familiar with some dozen languages, and a prolific writer on education, reform, language, history, art, and other topics.

Transcendental and Concord Connections
Elizabeth Peabody was the sister-in-law of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who married her sister Sophia in 1842, and educational reformer Horace Mann, who married her sister Mary in 1843. She associated with all of the Transcendentalists, major and minor--Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, James Freeman Clarke, Theodore Parker, and Jones Very among them. The company she kept has tended to eclipse her significance and contributions. And yet, she outlived all of the key figures connected with Transcendentalism, effectively extending the active influence of the movement almost to the turn of the 20th century.

In both her writings and her reform efforts, Miss Peabody was motivated by a comprehensive Transcendental vision of the origin of all matter and spirit and all human activity in God, by a sense of the oneness of God, man, and nature. Perceiving God as benevolent and humanity as morally and intellectually perfectible, she believed that her efforts could help to transform individuals and society.

Elizabeth Peabody had a particular affinity for finding unity amidst all kinds of diversity--social, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and linguistic--and above all a powerful drive to express her philosophical idealism in concrete ways.

Born in Billerica, Elizabeth Peabody moved often. She lived most of her life in Massachusetts, in Salem, Lancaster, Boston, Concord, Cambridge, and Jamaica Plain. In the late 1830s, she frequently visited the Emerson household on the Cambridge Turnpike in Concord. She lived in Concord later with her widowed sister Mary Mann at the Wayside and then on Sudbury Road (1859 and following), and again in Concord with her brother Nathaniel (beginning in 1878). She died in Jamaica Plain and was buried in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Concord's Peabody School is named for her.

Teacher and Educational Reformer
Peabody & Wm HarrisElizabeth Peabody's most lasting impact was as a teacher and educational reformer. She owed the development of her educational outlook primarily to her mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. Mrs. Peabody, wife of physician and dentist Dr. Nathaniel Peabody and mother of seven children, kept school at home in order to supplement the meager family income. Her daughter Elizabeth attended her school in Salem and eventually served as her assistant there.

Mrs. Peabody embraced the notion that each child should receive training appropriate to his or her innate capabilities, an idea in harmony with Kant's concept of and the later Transcendental belief in the intuitive nature of knowledge. Approached from this point of view, education was a matter of drawing out, not imposing, knowledge. The curriculum followed by Mrs. Peabody to accomplish this end consisted of language, literature, theology, philosophy, and history. The young Elizabeth Peabody was educated under such a curriculum, which informed her sense of what should be taught to children. Moreover, Mrs. Peabody strongly emphasized the moral and religious aspect of education. In her own career as a teacher, Miss Peabody in turn never sharply distinguished between spiritual and intellectual development. For her, as for her mother, education was not an accumulation of facts but rather a life-long process that developed the whole person.

Dr. William Ellery Channing--"the father of Unitarianism" and uncle of Concord poet William Ellery Channing--also influenced Miss Peabody. From 1826 through the early 1830s, he served as the young woman's mentor, helping her to broaden her reading and to think seriously about theology, literature, education, and reform. Channing reinforced the connection that Peabody had already perceived between the spiritual, the social, and the intellectual consciousness.

In addition, the writings of several educational theorists contributed to the refinement of Elizabeth Peabody's approach. She read the work of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, of Joseph Marie DeGerando, and of Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his daughter Maria. Peabody's First Lessons in Grammar on the Plan of Pestalozzi was published anonymously in 1830. Her joint translation with Dr. Channing from DeGerando, Self-Education; or, The Means and Art of Moral Progress, appeared in the same year, also anonymously.

Miss Peabody opened her first school in Lancaster in 1820. She subsequently opened schools in Boston (1822), Brookline (1825), and again in Boston (1826). From 1823 to 1825, she lived in Maine as governess to the children of the Vaughan and Gardiner families.

Elizabeth Peabody was involved in a number of innovative educational ventures, culminating in the establishment of the kindergarten in America from 1859. In 1832, she held the first of her "reading parties" or "conferences" for women. The sessions consisted of reading, lecture, and dialogue on a particular topic, such as ancient history or the causes of the French Revolution. An early form of continuing education, this interactive process was in keeping with the Transcendental sense of knowledge as intuitive. Margaret Fuller later capitalized on the technique.

Between 1879 and 1884, Miss Peabody attended and lectured at Bronson Alcott's Concord School of Philosophy, another experiment in adult education.

From 1834 to 1836, Peabody served as Alcott's assistant at the Temple School in Boston (so-called because it was held in the Masonic Temple at the corner of Tremont Street and Temple Place). When Alcott returned to New England from Pennsylvania in 1834, Peabody was planning to open a school for boys in Boston. Rather than compete with him for pupils, she encouraged him to set up his school, transferred to him the students she had started to gather for her own school, and offered to assist him. Since Peabody's thoughts on education coincided to a remarkable degree with Alcott's, their collaboration started out auspiciously. Both believed that proper teaching elicited the truth and moral sense within children, and that the Socratic question-and-answer method was effective toward that end.

Peabody's Record of a School, prepared from her manuscript notes on Alcott's dialogues with his students, was published in 1835. The two volumes of Alcott's Conversations with Children on the Gospels, edited by Alcott from Peabody's notes, appeared in 1836 and 1837. Unfortunately for both of them, Alcott had come dangerously close to discussing the facts of life in conversation with his pupils. The reaction that followed was devastating. Parents pulled their children out of the school. Peabody, understanding that her association with the controversy would make it impossible to gather students for a new school of her own, retreated to her family's home in Salem for several years.

Elizabeth Peabody lived and taught for a time at one of the cooperative communities that sprang up in the mid-19th century, the Raritan Bay Union in Eagleswood, New Jersey. She moved there in 1853 with her father.

Miss Peabody spent a decade of her life championing Josef Bem's novel system of teaching history through color-coded chronological grid charts. Bem, a Polish general, had introduced this method into Poland, France, and England. Between 1850 and 1860, Peabody hand-drew and hand-colored these charts and travelled the country to persuade public schools to use them. In 1850, she published The Polish-American System of Chronology and an accompanying volume of blank charts. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, however. Bem's charts were never widely adopted.

Kindergarten Comes to America
By 1859, Elizabeth Peabody was ready to take up the most significant educational work of her life. In that year, she learned of German educator Friedrich Froebel, who had worked with very young children and formulated an approach based on organized play, the use of the hands and the senses, and involvement with nature. Froebel had stressed that discipline shouldn't be based on force or fear and had recommended physical exercise in school. His philosophy impressed Peabody.

Elizabeth Palmer Peabody established the first formally organized American kindergarten in Boston in 1860. In order better to understand Froebel's principles, she travelled to Europe in 1867, and again in 1871. The first trip marked a turning point for her. By the time she returned, she had decided to devote the rest of her life to writing and lecturing on the kindergarten and to training kindergarten teachers. With missionary zeal, she proselytized around the country, wrote and talked with people in positions of power, and prepared scores of articles on the kindergarten. In 1873, she helped found and became the first editor of the Kindergarten Messenger. In 1877, she organized and became the first president of the American Froebel Union. While the spiritual and moral focus of the kindergarten as Froebel had conceived of it was eventually dropped from the movement, and while other advocates did not necessarily interpret Froebel as literally as did Miss Peabody, the kindergarten became a part of American life due largely to her exertions.

Despite frequent changes of outward circumstance and occupation, Elizabeth Peabody exhibited throughout her life a remarkable constancy of motivation. She came to maturity and spent her most vigorous years in a climate that nurtured faith in human nature and capabilities. In the classroom, in the Foreign Library, and in her efforts on behalf of oppressed individuals and groups, she demonstrated a pragmatic and abiding determination to bring reality in line with philosophy.

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Selected Sources

  • Baylor, Ruth M. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: Kindergarten Pioneer. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

  • Cooke, George Willis. A Historical and Biographical Introduction to Accompany the Dial. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961. (Vol. 1, p. 140-157, "Elizabeth P. Peabody.")

  • Mott, Wesley T. Biographical Dictionary of Transcendentalism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

  • Mott, Wesley T. Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

  • Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 1971. (Vol. 3, p. 31-34, "Elizabeth Peabody," by Charles H. Foster.)

  • Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Letters of Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, American Renaissance Woman. Edited, with an Introduction, by Bruce A. Ronda. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984.

  • Peabody, Elizabeth Palmer. Reminiscences of Rev. Wm. Ellery Channing, D.D. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1880.

  • Ronda, Bruce A. Elizabeth Palmer Peabody: A Reformer on Her Own Terms. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

  • Tharp, Louise Hall. The Peabody Sisters of Salem. Boston: Little, Brown, 1950.

  • Wilson, Leslie Perrin. Introduction to a Bibliography of Books Presented to the Concord Free Public Library by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (typescript thesis), 1982.

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    Text: ©1999 Leslie Perrin Wilson
    Photos: (click on photos for larger view) Courtesy the Concord Free Public Library. Top: Peabody in middle age, from cabinet card photograph. Below that: Peabody and William Torrey Harris near the Concord School of Philosophy, 1880's (taken by Alfred W. Hosmer).

    Background: Bren's Original Backgrounds

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