Heroes of Progress in America - Charles Morris

Stephen Girard,
the Friend of the Orphan

A queer old fellow, one-eyed, and one-sided in his nature, was Stephen Girard, the famous Philadelphia merchant of a century ago. Rich, eccentric, miserly in his habits, yet ready to spend his money and even risk his life for the good of mankind, such was the odd make-up of the old merchant In our days a for-tune of more than a hundred millions of dollars is not thought remarkable, but in his days Girard, with a few millions, was looked upon as a world's wonder, stupendously rich, and he became famous as the Croesus of his day. This much more we may say, that no man, except Benjamin Franklin, ever did so much to benefit the great city in which he made his home. Miser as he lived, he left his great wealth with wise discrimination for the benefit of his fellow citizens after his death.

The life of Stephen Girard was in one way like that of John Jacob Astor. Both poor boys, born a few years apart in Europe, they both made their way to America and there, by aid of a genius for business, built up great fortunes. Girard was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1750, and set out to win his fortune at the age of thirteen, as a cabin boy on a ship bound for the West Indies and New York. For thirteen years he followed the sea, becoming a thorough sailor, and making his way upward step by step, until he became captain and owner of a vessel in the American coasting trade.

In 1776 he left New Orleans on a voyage to Canada. The colonies of America were then fighting for liberty, and ships like his were in danger of being captured as prizes by British ships of war, many of which were prowling about. On reaching the waters off the mouth of Delaware Bay the ship was becalmed, and Girard feared some British cruiser might swoop down on him like a sea-hawk. So with the first breath of air he sailed into the bay and on up the Delaware River until Philadelphia was reached.

Thus it was more accident than anything else that made. Girard a citizen of William Penn's city, then the metropolis of America. Sea traffic was just then too dangerous for a cautious man, so he sold his vessel and cargo and went into business in a grocery and liquor store.

Girard College


From the very start his cautious, saving habits and business judgment were shown. He saved his money carefully, and as soon as the war was over and the seas were safe, he invested his savings in the New Orleans and San Domingo trade, which he knew to be profitable. At the same time he looked carefully around him for chances. The war had ruined business in Philadelphia, but he was shrewd enough to know that it would soon revive, and he was ready to take advantage of the change.

One sharp thing he did was to rent a block of buildings on Water Street at a very low rate, which, as soon as business grew better, he leased to others for a much larger rent. But his chief inclination was towards the ocean trade, which he thoroughly understood, and he joined his brother in trading ventures to West Indian ports. Cautious, shrewd, far-seeing in business operations, he went on until he had accumulated thirty thousand dollars, a small fortune in those days. He then left his brother and began dealing for himself.

A remarkable accident about this time more than doubled Girard's fortune at a single stroke, one of those strange chances which come in the lives of some men. In 1791 the negroes of the island of Hayti broke out in insurrection against the French, and a war for liberty began which lasted for years. Many of the planters were killed, and all that could fled for their lives to the vessels in the harbor.

It happened that two vessels belonging to Girard lay there, and to these came several planters carrying what they could bring of their wealth. Leaving this, they returned for more, but never came back again. They were probably met by armed negroes and killed. When the vessels reached Philadelphia Girard's captains told him of what had happened and handed over the treasure. He put it safely away, advertised it long and widely, but no one ever came to claim it, and the treasure became his. This strange stroke of fortune added some fifty thousand dollars to his growing wealth. He had become a heir of the unknown dead.

Girard by this time was looked upon as one of the merchant princes of the Quaker City and as one of its most enterprising citizens. His wealth was steadily growing, his enterprises were so carefully managed f that they all proved successful, and he was fast growing rich. But he did not make friends. He was of a sour, unhappy disposition, was looked upon as a miser, avoided society, and lived in a sparse way over his Water Street store, giving every hour of his time to his business, harsh and penurious to those under him, and exacting the best service at the smallest cost. He was not a lovable man.

And yet below all this coldness and harshness, this grasping for dollars and driving of hard bargains, there was much that was good and noble in the man, and the time was at hand when he was to show a courage in danger and a love for his fellows which put to shame many others of more specious show of philanthropy.

In 1793 a terrible epidemic of yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia. Thousands were down with the dread disease, the hospitals were overcrowded with sufferers, multitudes were fleeing in terror from the city, great distress prevailed among the sick, and few could be found willing to take care of them. An appeal was made for nurses and money, and, to the surprise of everybody, Stephen Girard was one of the first to respond. He paid freely for help and supplies of all kinds, and, more than this, he offered his own services as a nurse.

Entering a hospital filled with victims of the terrible pestilence, he took tender care of the sick, giving his earnest and unwavering attention to his duty during the whole continuance of the scourge. Daily his own life was in danger, but he never swerved from his work, fortunately escaping infection. When the epidemic ended one-sixth of the people of the city had fallen victims to it, and many helpless orphans were left. To these Girard became like a second father, two hundred of them being provided for by him in an orphans' home.

Four years later the disease returned. This time it was not so bad, and the authorities knew better how to manage it. But Girard came forward in the same brave and devoted manner as before, aiding the sick with money and personal service. After the disease was finally overcome, it left behind it a new and better opinion of Stephen Girard. Men no longer looked upon him as a heartless and penurious money-maker, and though still not liked, he had won admiration and respect.

This yellow fever episode was the one illuminating event in Stephen Girard's life. The crust was removed and men saw the true nobility of his nature. The remainder of his life was devoted to what he deemed the one important business, that of money-making, in which he grew more and more successful as time went on,

He became a great sea merchant. Vessel after vessel was added to his fleet, until he had ships in all seas. There was hardly a port in the world where things were to be bought and sold that his ships did not reach. He was an adept in ocean trading, and knew just how to make the most of his ventures. With China and the East Indies he had a large trade, for there goods of great value in the West were to be had. Careful directions were given to his captains, which they were to obey on pain of dismissal. Thus they were told to buy fruits in the fertile islands of the south and sell them in northern ports. Here other goods were to be bought and carried again where they would bring the best price. Thus in each voyage two or three separate profits were made, and almost every venture added a notable share to his wealth.

His captains must obey orders. He would take no excuses, even if much money was made by their taking a chance on their own account. This was one of Girard's fads. Any captain who broke his orders lost his place. He thought he knew best, and left no discretion to his captains. "once it might succeed," he said, "but if followed up it would likely lead to losses, and at last ruin me." He was an old merchant and deemed his own judgment better than that of men who, however well they understood the sea, had had no training in trade.

Girard went into a new business in 1812. He bought the building and most of the stock of the old United States Bank and became a banker, the new institution becoming known as the Girard Bank. He made money in it, as he did in everything, in time increasing the capital to four millions and doing a large and profitable business.

This was the time of the second war with Great retain, and in the third year of this war Stephen Girard came to the aid of the Government, as Robert Morris had done in the Revolutionary War. Money was badly needed and a loan of five millions was offered the people. Liberal inducements were presented, but only the paltry amount of twenty thousand dollars was bid for.

In this dilemma Girard came forward and agreed to take the whole loan, lending the Government the total sum. This act made the loan popular, and the far-seeing banker soon found a profitable market for the bonds. As his biography says: "He was the sheet anchor of the government credit during that disastrous war." Whether he had the aid of the Government in view, or his shrewd business judgment saw in this a way to add to his own wealth, this much is certain, that the Government found him a helper in its extremity.

As his wealth rose into the millions it was used in new enterprises. He was active in obtaining a charter for the second Bank of the United States, and served on its board of directors. Several handsome blocks of buildings were built by him in the city, he subscribed liberally to the fund for the improvement of the Schuylkill, and invested largely in other directions. His wealth, which in the end reached the then enormous sum of about nine million dollars, needed a profitable output in various directions, and he was on the alert for good investments.

Many anecdotes might be told of Girard's eccentricities if we had space for them. He was a queer fellow throughout, testy and often ill-natured, caring nothing for society and paying no attention to religious services. Money was his god, and to that he gave his life, except in the one noble case of self-sacrifice cited.

He married, it is true, but his wife found him far from being a cheerful companion, and his penuriousness and testy ill nature made his household anything but a scene of domestic comfort. The poor woman in the end lost her mind and spent the last years of her life in an insane asylum, while Girard shut himself up more closely in his shell than ever.

When old age came upon him the question of what he should do with his wealth occupied his mind. He had no children, his wife was dead, and when his will came to be read, after his death on the 26th of December, 1831, the people of Philadelphia were astonished and delighted with its provisions. After leaving legacies to his relatives, to such of his captains as should bring their vessels safely home, to his apprentices and old servants, the great bulk of his estate was left to found a college for orphans, to improve the streets of Philadelphia and develop canal navigation, to a fund for the distressed masters of ships, and to various city and state schools and asylums. His public bequests amounted to nearly seven million dollars, his private ones to several millions more.

The city of Philadelphia was his chief heir, and Girard College his great bequest. Forty-five acres of land and two millions of dollars were left for this benevolent purpose, to be devoted to the care and education of fatherless white boys, who were to be carefully reared and apprenticed to some suitable occupation.

Girard College, as the first of importance, is the most famous institution due to benevolence in the United States, and its great main building is the finest example of Corinthian architecture now standing in the world.

It has started some thousands of boys upon the upward track in life, and its mission for good grows with the years, while the Girard Trust Fund, carefully managed and fostered, has proved of great value to the city of Philadelphia. Girard showed excellent business judgment in the disposition of his money, and the results have all been for good. No man in America has won greater fame as a benefactor of mankind than the eccentric and money-grabbing merchant of Water Street, Philadelphia, and Girard College stands as a noble monument to his memory.