Merchant, Mariner, Banker, Philanthropist, Humanitarian, Patriot
by Mike DiMeo, Girard College graduate (1939) and author of "The Stone Cocoon," about the college.
Stephen Girard came to America by way of Philadelphia in 1776 through circumstance rather than by purpose. He had been to New York on earlier voyages, but it was not until his arrival in Philadelphia that Girard made America his permanent home. He went on to be the wealthiest citizen and, in several ways, he contributed much to the early growth of the new nation he adopted. His influence was evident in shipping, construction, banking, and even in politics, later into coal mining and railroads. In a more benign display of control, Girard gained great civic regard with his attention to the human tragedies that took a toll in the early years of the Republic. His generosity was exhibited in many charitable works, the most notable of which thrives today. Many decades after his death in 1831, Girard College, a school opened in his name, continues to function as he decreed it, giving opportunity to those who would otherwise not have it. Stephen Girard's legacy lives on in diverse ways, visible and invisible, public and silent, his mark indelibly inscribed on our society.
A postcard depicting an older Stephen Girard standing among the orphans
Born on May 20th, 1750, in Bordeaux, the largest seaport in southwestern, France, Stephen Girard felt the attraction of the seas at an early age, and would find his destiny in answering that call. The early business knowledge that Stephen Girard so readily acquired came after sailing the seas first as a recruit, later as master, gaining the wisdom that would take him far afield into profitable business ventures other than those that resulted from his maritime successes. The United States of America did not yet exist when young Stephen Girard boarded his first ship. However, his innate business intelligence, gathered beyond that of his peers, held that his destiny would one day make him the richest man in this country.
Girard grew up as the oldest in a large family of nine children born to Pierre and Anne Girard. He had no formal schooling; there was no system of public education in France until after the French Revolution. His education came from his parents and from tutors. Pierre and Anne Girard were aware of his growing love for a life at sea and were keenly attentive as their young son outlined his dreams to them, dreams that would soon take him across the seas and, eventually, to a new home.
Girard was a willing student; he assimilated knowledge quickly and developed a thirst for learning that served him well as he grew to be the foremost business titan of his time. The lure of the sea came naturally to Girard. His father had gone on to become a ship's captain while in his twenties, and his grandfather had even earlier decided on a career at sea when only ten years old. That influence likely effected Stephen Girard's tendencies toward the water.
Girard's early life was difficult. Whether or not he was born without vision in his right eye is unknown. What is certain is that the eye was not only sightless, it became a repulsive looking abnormality that brought young Girard ridicule and, later, unwarranted social isolation. The cruelty of those with whom Girard associated in business and in casual social activity as they observed his affliction with obvious distaste, forced him into seclusion at times, and brought with it a stigma that labeled him as shy and withdrawn.
Anne Girard, Stephen's mother, died at the age of thirty-six. The continued pregnancies and the labors of childbearing, one upon another, contributed to her death in April of 1762. The passing of his mother had great impact on Stephen Girard and was likely the impetus that helped send him to sea early in 1764. He set sail from Bordeaux on the brig Pelerin as a pilotin, an apprentice officer.
The learning process as a pilotin included many ship-maneuvering nuances normally handled only by the captain of the vessel. Girard's quick and favorable responses to the demands of ocean travel quickly became apparent. As a result, Girard was given greater latitude in his role as pilotin. With that vote of confidence, he was able to grasp not only the demands of handling and commanding a ship at sea; he also learned much about buying and selling cargo; at that time, principally sugar and coffee. Despite a demanding schedule on board ship, Girard read extensively, broadening his intellect and developing an assurance and self-confidence that would bring him to a command of his own ship at an early age.
Girard's first voyage as a captain came at the helm of a brigantine named Sally. At twenty-three years of age, Stephen Girard was a small, man, only five feet six inches in height. But he was resolute as the captain of a sea-going vessel. His strong voice produced the authoritative ring necessary to hold the attention of a crew at sea for extended periods. His bright red hair accented his thorough demeanor, and he countenanced no nonsense on board his ship.
Upon his return to Bordeaux in 1773, Girard was formally licensed as a captain in the French merchant marine by the French government. His reputation and skill as a sea captain obtained other potentially lucrative voyages for him, and he was soon carrying out sizable business deals that brought him extensive profits.
New York, New York
Another voyage took Girard westward arriving in New York in July of 1774. In short order, he became acquainted with ship owners and merchants in the teeming city. A series of voyages to New Orleans on vessels owned by Thomas Randall, who befriended the energetic Girard led to a highly profitable business association for both of them. Stephen Girard began to develop an appreciation for the potential of the American market, buying sugar and coffee in the West Indies to sell in the new nation, while in return shipping American goods to the West Indies, an arrangement that allowed him to quickly accumulate considerable capital.
When America began to flex its young muscles, intent on gaining independence from British control, the Crown countered by blockading American ports. In May of 1776, the blockade of the colonies, took Girard off his intended course to New York and steered him instead up the Delaware River in command of the Jeune Babe, a schooner in which he had part ownership. The diversion proved to be fortuitous; it brought him to Philadelphia where he took up permanent residence and where his meteoric rise to riches began. On June 6, 1776, Girard found himself in the midst of a revolution; the colonies were debating whether or not to break from Britain, and Thomas Jefferson was putting the early touches to the Declaration of Independence.
The Loving Landlubber
In the first weeks of Girard's residence in Philadelphia, turmoil grew more insistent; the Declaration of Independence was finalized. Girard decided to throw his newly developed business influence, tenuous though it might have been in those first months, on the side of the Americans. As a Frenchman, he had no great love for the British, and saw an opportunity to help the fledgling nation in its bold determination to gain independence, not in any combative way for him, but in the profitable business of supply.
The business environment that Girard developed so skillfully around him eventually helped determine that he could no longer go to sea as an active seafaring merchant. It was not only the management of his business enterprises that demanded his attention at home in America. In 1776, he met, courted, and eventually married an eighteen-year old beauty, Philadelphia native, Mary Lum. Girard was then approaching his twenty-seventh birthday. Outweighing his need to tend to business was Girard's attachment and passion for Mary. Returning to France and continuing his sea life took a back seat to spending time with his new wife.
Shortly after Girard married Mary Lum, he purchased a home at 211 Mill Street in Mount Holly, New Jersey. There they lived and established a store selling sundry items to the locals, at the same time selling provisions to the American revolutionaries — which annoyed the British greatly. Girard had embraced the American bid for liberty, but in so doing, also saw opportunity for profit. He continued his business dealings in Mount Holly as the war raged about him in New Jersey.
As the British left the Mount Holly area, Stephen Girard and his wife moved back to Philadelphia where their business flourished in 1777 and 1778. While enjoying his profits as a Philadelphia merchant, Girard was also acquiring a fondness for the city itself and its stimulating environment. Girard, the Frenchman, was rapidly embracing the standards of his adopted American society. It was acceptable practice for wealthy and prominent citizens of the time to acquire slaves as a commodity. Girard was no different in that regard; he felt no stigma in owning slaves. But while he had slaves in his household, he did not carry slaves on any of his ships.
On October 27, 1778, Stephen Girard officially became an American. The process of formally accepting him took place in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Girard moved easily into his new status; in becoming an American, he also pledged an oath of allegiance to Pennsylvania. In doing so, he gained other favors that benefited him financially.
The war continued and for Girard business continued favorably. He put great emphasis on his maritime ventures. In defying the proximity of the British blockade, he took risks, but healthy profits were also his. He increased the potential for profit by investing in ships, buying into those ships that moved his cargoes.
Business pursuits went on in methodical and practical fashion for Stephen Girard after the war ended. By 1781, he was a maritime entrepreneur of extraordinary dimensions. His expertise was widely recognized and his skills in business dealings seemed to flow quite naturally. But the success came from a practical and hard-working man. His prosperity came from an unstinting work ethic. All things pointed to a world full of promise and happiness.
In early 1785, the world around Stephen Girard began to crumble. With a suddenness that was alarming, his wife exhibited prolonged periods of uncontrolled emotional outbursts. Mental instability accompanied by violent rage over time led to a conclusion that Mary Girard was insane. They had been married but eight years.
Girard was devastated. For two years, he tried without success to have the medical community help her. But in 1787, Girard finally recognized that his marriage was ended. He took a mistress, Sally Bickham, into his home to replace the lost affections of his wife. At that time, there was no stigma associated with the practice of acquiring a mistress. Girard no longer had a wife with whom he could continue a peaceful and compatible relationship. Sally Bickham would fill the void.
Mind Your Business
Despite the sad intrusion of his wife's illness into his otherwise stable life, Girard was able to devote his energies to business; he widened his influence in the maritime trade. His astute business instincts led him in the direction of the trade with China, a decision that had him take the lead as a global trade prospector. He even went to sea on one of his own ships taking cargo to his native land, France. It was the last time he set foot in France and his last trip as captain of any vessel.
During his journey, in April of 1788, Girard's father died, though he would not learn of it for months. Stephen Girard's inheritance amounted to less than one hundred dollars, an irony considering his own gathering wealth. He also inherited the house where his father had lived and where he (Stephen) was born.
In 1789, the United States Constitution effectively brought on and established governmental control of the country, eliminating individual state mandates that had caused confusion in the shipping business. Any and all regulations governing the shipping industry were centralized with the federal government, presenting a more orderly process. For Stephen Girard, the decision was beneficial. The tentacles of his worldwide trade could reach out unfettered and unrestricted as they sometimes had been under state laws.
In 1790, the relatively peaceful maritime industry that Girard enjoyed was once again thrown into turmoil. The French Revolution would rage for years and disrupt world commerce. Girard knew that his profitable business enterprises would be in jeopardy.
Committed to Mary, but Mary Is Committed
His concerns in those troubled times were compounded by the increasingly deteriorating condition of his wife, Mary. She had been insane for five years, and there appeared to be no hope for recovery. In August of 1790, Girard had his wife committed to Pennsylvania Hospital as an incurable lunatic. This was not done without total awareness of the enormity of his actions. Girard, sparing no expense, made certain that there be effort made to ease his wife's discomfort; she was afforded every luxury possible. While confined, Mary Girard gave birth to a baby girl that died in infancy. There has never been conclusive proof that Stephen Girard fathered that child nor any proof to the contrary.
In the aftermath of his wife's commitment, a relative tranquillity settled on Girard until late in the summer of 1793. Philadelphia was then the capital of the United States, and the population was expanding rapidly. A scourge would come to Philadelphia that would diminish the population considerably before running its course.
Yellow Fever came to the city, likely by way of refugees who had fled a rebellion in St-Domingue and found refuge in America. With a touch of irony, Stephen Girard afforded financial assistance to some of those refugees who likely carried the disease to America. Girard was to emerge as a hero in the dissolution of the disease. Before the hideous malady had run its course, five thousand Philadelphians would die.
Citizens by the thousands fled the city, including the most prominent of them, President George Washington. But Girard, who could have taken refuge at any safe haven of his choosing, remained to care for the sick and the dying. He further supervised the work of other volunteers in transforming Bush Hill, a mansion just outside the city limits, into a hospital. There the grisly job of removing the dead coincided with improving the lot of the living. It was undertaken with Girard doing many of the menial tasks associated with those chores. Through his tireless efforts, those stricken with the disease, in the care of Girard and the staff at Bush Hill, gained a fair chance of survival. Those who perished were given proper burial.
In late October of the year, with the onset of cold weather, the hideous disease and the death toll associated with it began to wane. Girard was recognized as a hero, and was publicly acclaimed as such in a meeting held in City Hall. Girard's prominence as a successful merchant was already widely acknowledged in business circles. Not until his display of courage in combating the frightening Yellow Fever epidemic did he gain public acclaim. He remained ever reticent about his status as a hero, however.