Steven Girard: Part 3

Merchant, Mariner, Banker, Philanthropist, Humanitarian, Patriot

by Mike DiMeo, Girard College graduate (1939) and author of "The Stone Cocoon," about the college.

A Loan to the Treasury in Excess of Eight Million Dollars

Without demanding the concessions from the government, concessions that he could readily have obtained, Girard displayed the courage and the patriotism that few others could or would. He risked his entire fortune in granting a loan to the Treasury in excess of eight million dollars. When his country was down and out, Girard came to the rescue.

The Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war in December of 1814. America once more retreated to a peace that was obtained largely because one man, Girard, displayed the confidence in his nation that others lacked. Bold and fearless, wise, and with indomitable spirit, Girard gave America a lesson in courage and love of country that should have been recorded by historians with greater understanding, certainly with a more profound passion and eloquence.

September 13, 1815, should have been a date of no special import for Stephen Girard. There were no new shipping disasters, and there was nothing to interfere with the new and successful banking career of Stephen Girard. It did become, however, a date of momentous proportions to Stephen Girard. On that date, his wife Mary, who had been a loving companion in marriage for eight years before going insane, and who languished in the silence of her insanity for twenty-five years, died at Pennsylvania Hospital. She was fifty-six years old at her death.

Girard was distraught when Mary died; he displayed great emotional distress at her passing and wept as he said farewell at her final viewing. His moving expression of remorse at her death might have come from his torment of not having been able to consummate a family with her; his joy when having children around him in his home, some as almost strangers, might give credence to that speculation. He had tried on two occasions to gain a divorce from Mary while she slowly passed through her twenty-five years of insanity, but he never neglected her well being. She was afforded the best care that could be provided at that time despite the difficulty in understanding and treating the illness that plagued her. In accordance with her husband's wishes, Mary Lum Girard was laid to rest on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Hospital, her grave site unmarked and unadorned.

Girard's business strength never faltered in the face of that adversity. His banking successes multiplied and his reputation in the banking industry soon became legend. He was frequently courted for advice and support on banking matters. A Second Bank of the United States came about largely through his influence. The bank was located in Philadelphia so as to be in concert with Girard's Bank, also located in that city. Girard's wealth and personal appeal were a positive factor as well as the financial stability that accrued in doing business with Girard's Bank.

Despite his wealth, which entitled Girard to a life of luxury and ease should he desire, he was a hands-on businessman; in shipping, farming, and in banking, he was visible in all areas of the workplace, often performing menial, physically demanding tasks in defiance of his advancing years. "My deeds must be my life," he said. "When I am dead, my actions must speak for me." He further said that when death came for him he would be busy unless he was asleep in bed. Those words truly represented this simple living, but philosophically complex man.

New Investments

Girard's physical abilities were diminishing in the advance of his years, but his mental acuity remained at a high level; he saw opportunity where others did not. Coal and the railroad became a new, exciting and profitable challenge for him as he approached the twilight of his life. He purchased land in upstate Pennsylvania; the value that Girard perceived in making his bold venture was to be accrued as coal mining would bring him new riches. He was then seventy-nine years old. When eighty-one, he invested in railroading, the vehicle that would carry the coal to the markets he envisioned would be there.

Girard continued to exert his diminishing physical energies to all of his many and diverse business enterprises. His personality remained as always: determined and resolute; hard work the only companion he felt to be a worthy one. Polly Kenton no longer was his mistress. After thirty-one years of a faithful relationship that had satisfied both parties, the separation came in 1827. The few remaining years of his life were spent as they had always been, working and looking constantly for more worlds to conquer.

Girard's Death

Death came to Stephen Girard on December 26, 1831. Influenza was taking a heavy toll in Philadelphia. He contracted the disease that quickly developed into pneumonia and proved to be fatal. His faithful slave, Hannah, was at his bedside when Girard died. She had served him for more than fifty years, and she would be rewarded in his will accordingly. She was granted her freedom and an annual income that would serve her well for the rest of her life. His generosity did not cease with his death.

Girard was buried four days later in the churchyard cemetery of Holy Trinity, where a simple grave site ceremony took place. In the four days between his death and burial, the city of Philadelphia paid tribute to Girard with acclamations of appreciation and respect for his contributions, both on a business and personal level. He had gained admiration from the citizens of Philadelphia for his selfless expressions of humanitarian concern; his funeral became a significant event as mourners, the rich, the poor, notables and the common man, all wished to publicly acknowledge the loss they felt.

Girard's Remarkable Will

Founder's Hall at Girard College

Girard's will had been carefully and painstakingly written and rewritten, especially in the final year of his life. Aside from his slave, Hannah, he also allotted lifetime incomes to the other women in his life allowing them to live comfortably in their remaining years. Many other charitable groups benefited from Girard's benevolence; his generosity knew no bounds.

Above all else, in a gesture that stands alone in the educational history of America, unique in the magnitude of that gesture, and an acknowledgment of the foresight of the man who envisioned the benefits, was the gift of Girard College. It is perhaps the single, most extraordinary portion of a legacy that speaks of Girard's generosity as no other. Carefully structured to his wishes, Girard College is located in the northern part of the city of Philadelphia. Stephen Girard, in his will, allocated millions to build and operate a boarding school for "poor, white, male orphans." That legacy was carried out as he willed it for one hundred and twenty years.

The will was amended in 1968 by order of the Supreme Court of the United States to strike the "poor, white, male orphan" provision so as to include the underprivileged without regard to race, creed or color. It was later amended a second time to allow for the admission of females. The school remains today as a leader in providing quality education to hundreds of children from poor families everywhere. It is a school without parallel.

Girard's will was severely challenged by relatives who regarded his gift to orphans to be excessive and counter to their own welfare in seeking the huge estate value for themselves. In 1844, provisions of the will were argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Daniel Webster was the petitioner for the Girard family; a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, Horace Binney, argued for the defense. In 1844, the Supreme Court upheld the will as it was written. It was then considered a stinging defeat for Daniel Webster.

Girard College


Building on the forty-five acre tract of land where Girard College was to rise in North Philadelphia had begun earlier. On January 1, 1848, the first students entered Girard College to begin studies in the basics of Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, and other more advanced subjects touching on Astronomy, and various Philosophies. The curriculum also included the French and Spanish languages. Girard's will was specific in outlining the design of the buildings to house the students; he had given great thought also to the education that would be provided.

On January 9, 1851, Girard's remains were taken from the grave at Trinity Cemetery and moved to Girard College, and placed in Founder's Hall. Months later after completion of a sarcophagus, the casket holding the remains of Girard was placed in the sarcophagus in the front foyer of Founder's Hall. A life-size marble statue of Girard stands before the sarcophagus giving the students and visitors who can view it from the roadway below an impression of dignity, authority, and a peaceful aura of simplicity, competence, and durability.

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