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American Moguls: Stephen Girard

Mark Wyatt McGinnis

Stephen Girard, acrylic on paper, 2022, Mark W McGinnis

Stephen Girard


When Death comes for me, he will find me busy unless I am asleep in my bed. If I thought I was going to die tomorrow, I should plant a tree.

Stephen Girard was born in the seaport city of Bordeaux, France. His father was a port captain and a prosperous merchant. At age 8, he was at the seaside with his companions, sitting around a bonfire. One of the boys threw wet oyster shells into the fire and they exploded. A shell fragment sliced through Stephens’ eye, leaving the area severely disfigured. From that time on, the other children ridiculed and ostracized him. Later in life, this wound continued to repulse some people. It was a factor that strongly impacted how he interacted with people throughout his life and may explain the extraordinary compassion he was to show to the outcast and the sick.

When he was 12, his mother died. She bore a child nearly every year, and she was spent. His father remarried, and Stephen often quarreled with his stepmother. When he was 14, he approached his father about going to sea. His father agreed and arranged a cabin boy position for him. His father placed $3,000 of merchandise on the ship, making the cabin boy’s very unusual role as part of the venture owner.

Stephen rapidly rose to the rank of lieutenant. On the sea, he seemed to have the confidence and sense of authority he had lacked on land. With the help of his father, Stephen became captain at 23. His trading voyages took him to the West Indies, New Orleans, and New York City. His trading was very successful, and he became known and admired.

In 1776, with the British blockading colony ports, Girard was going to run the blockade with a shipment to New York when he became trapped in Delaware Bay. He decided his best chance of escaping was to go up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. He needed to hire a pilot to guide the ship up the river, but when he found one, he discovered he did not have $5.00 cash to pay the pilot. An American officer on the ship loaned him the money. They started up the river, and a British Man-of-War was in the bay within an hour. Later, he joked that a five-dollar loan started his life in Philadelphia and saved him from a British prison. American history would have been altered if that had happened.

In Philadelphia, he started a business to sell merchandise from the ship and help supply the American army. He rapidly grew to like the city, became a patriot, and a citizen of Pennsylvania. His business prospered, and he returned to the shipping business, having a ship built by a man named Lum. They became good friends, and Girard was dazzled by his beautiful 18-year-old daughter, Mary. In 1776, they were married. Eight years later, Mary gradually began showing signs of acute mental illness, possibly severe bipolar disease, with bouts of violence. Girard was devastated and for five years, tried everything possible at the time to help her with no success. In 1790 Mary was committed to an asylum. She had a suite of rooms, her own attendants, and every comfort. She became pregnant in the asylum. Girard denied paternity. When Mary had the child and was nursing it, her mental illness disappeared, according to her doctors. Girard had the child taken from her and sent to the country to be nursed. He feared the mother’s madness would be transferred to the child through the milk. Mary’s illness returned, and the baby died several months later. When Mary died at the age of 56, and by Girard’s instructions, Mary was buried beneath the lawn at the asylum and no marker set.

Girard took a series of mistresses through the rest of his life and took in three orphaned nieces and two nephews he raised. As with nearly all “men of means,” he had household slaves but never engaged in the slave trade with his ships. From 21st-century eyes, all slavery appears barbarous, which it was and is. But to Girard’s time and place, it was the norm as it had been in countless cultures since men first gathered in groups. This in no way justifies slavery. It was one of the deplorable ways human beings treated and treat one another. With his employees, he was unusually fair and tolerant. He was a well-respected businessman who gave lavishly to charities, including benevolent religious groups, though he lived as an atheist.

Philadelphia suffered a severe outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1793 that was to kill 5,000 citizens. Those with the means fled the city. Girard not only did not flee but became a hero of the tragedy. He took a mansion near a poor area of the city, converted it into a hospital, and staffed it at his expense. He did not think the sickness was contagious, and time proved him correct as mosquito bites spread it. He was against bleeding and purging the patients and instead gave them wine and lemonade. He staffed the hospital with mostly French doctors and nurses. If this were not enough, he also directly nursed some of the sickest patients. A story is told of him caring for a patient who violently vomited all over himself and Girard. Girard calmly cleaned the patient and then comforted him. After working 6-8 hours at the hospital, it was said he would take his carriage into the poor neighborhoods and drag the sickest out of their houses, put them in his carriage, and take them to his hospital. Girard had been one of the most respected businessmen in Philadelphia; he was now the most heroic. The love of the people followed him for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, his businesses flourished, and his already large fortune grew. His shipping empire grew, now trading with China and with some involvement in opium smuggling. He purchased vast areas of Pennsylvania with huge holdings of timber and coal. He bought up large areas of Philadelphia. He became one of the wealthiest men in U.S. history.

In 1811 Congress failed to renew the 1st Bank of the United States. Girard bought it and all its assets. When the War of 1812 broke out, he credited the government the incredible sum of 8 million dollars of his own money and kept the war financed and the country afloat until the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.

He had a farm on the south edge of the city where he went nearly every day doing manual labor. He said he liked to work hard daily to sleep well nightly. At 80, he was walking from his offices to his home when a horse and wagon ran him down. A wheel went over his head; cutting his face and good eye. He picked himself up and walked the rest of the way home. The wound was treated, and after several months he returned to work. But later the following year, 1831, he caught influenza that developed into pneumonia and died. His funeral procession was the largest Philadelphia had experienced.

His Will shocked many. Expectedly, he gave large amounts to charities and generously to the public schools. It also gave 6 million dollars (144 million today!) to build and support Girard College. Expecting large inheritances, his relatives, mainly in France, sued to have the Will nullified. The case was argued before the Supreme Court with the famous Daniel Webster representing the relatives. He lost.

Girard had planned the college for many years, from curriculum to design. The school was for orphan or poor one parent white boys. He instructed that no clergy be allowed on the staff or even on campus grounds. He wanted the highest moral virtues taught, not religious doctrine. He ordered a ten-foot brick wall be erected around the 45-acre campus to protect the boys from the vices of the community. When the college was completed in 1844, his remains were moved into a sarcophagus in the foyer of the Parthenon-like Founder’s Building. The Supreme Court integrated the school in 1968, and girls were allowed shortly after that.

There is conflicting information in accounts of some details of Girard’s life. But there is unanimity in the essentials, as reflected in the eulogies of his life. He was plain in appearance, he was frugal in all habits, he was a stranger to social circles, he was indifferent to political distinction, he shunned all luxury, he whole-heartedly cared for the poor, his enjoyment was in labor, and he always worked as if he had nothing.

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