The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Girard, Stephen

Edition of 1879. See also Stephen Girard on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

GIRARD, Stephen, an American merchant and banker, born near Bordeaux, France, May 24, 1750, died in Philadelphia, Dec. 26, 1831. He was the son of a seaman, and sailed about 1760 as cabin boy to the West Indies and New York. Rising by degrees to be master and part owner of an American coasting vessel, he accumulated in the course of a few years a sum sufficient to establish him in business as a small trader in Philadelphia in 1776. He married about this time the daughter of a ship builder of that city, but the union was unhappy. Mr. Girard applied for a divorce, and his wife ultimately died insane in a public hospital. Meanwhile Girard trafficked with the West Indies with variable success, until his maritime ventures were suspended by the war of the revolution. He then opened a grocery and liquor shop, at first in Philadelphia, and during the British occupation of that city at Mount Holly, where he drove a profitable trade with the American soldiers. In 1780 he resumed his dealings with the West Indies and New Orleans, and some time afterward was in partnership for a few years with his brother John. The connection was dissolved in 1790, Stephen having gained while it lasted about $30,000. The foundation of his subsequent wealth, however, seems to have been a lease which he took of a range of stores, at a time when rents were much depressed by the war; these he underlet at a large profit. Another source of gain was the negro insurrection in Hayti. Two of his vessels were then in one of the ports of the island, and many of the planters placed their treasures in them for safety, but were afterward cut off with their entire families. About $50,000 worth of property whose owners could not be found thus remained in Mr. Girard's hands. With a remarkable capacity for business and a habit of strictness in money matters, he rapidly multiplied his wealth, and before long came to be recognized as one of the richest merchants in the city. During the prevalence of the yellow fever in Philadelphia in 1793, '7, and '8, when it raged with a violence never before seen in America, Mr. Girard not only gave money liberally, but performed in person the duties of physician and nurse, undertook the most disagreeable offices in the hospitals, and for two months kept charge of the hospital on Bush hill. In 1812, having purchased the building and a large part of the stock of the old United States bank, he commenced business as a private banker, with a capital of $1,200,000, which was afterward increased to $4,000,000. Besides the benefit which this institution proved to the national currency, it enabled Mr. Girard to make heavy loans to the government in times of public embarrassment; and during the war of 1812, when out of a loan of $5,000,000 proposed by the secretary of the treasury only $20,000 could be negotiated, he subscribed for the whole amount. He was active in procuring the charter of the second United States bank, of which he became a director. He contributed liberally to all public improvements, and adorned the city of Philadelphia with many handsome buildings. He was frugal and parsimonious, but not avaricious; profuse in his public charities, but stern in exacting the last fraction that was due him. His kindness to the sick was extraordinary, but he never had a friend. His appearance was very plain. He was uneducated; was a free thinker in religion, and an admirer of the school of Voltaire and Rousseau, after whom he was fond of naming his ships. His property at the time of his death amounted to about $9,000,000. Comparatively little of it was bequeathed to his relatives. To the Pennsylvania hospital he willed $30,000; to the Pennsylvania institution for the deaf and dumb, $20,000; to the orphan asylum of Philadelphia, $10,000; to the Philadelphia public schools, $10,000; to the city of Philadelphia, for the distribution of fuel to the poor every winter, $10,000; to the society for the relief of distressed masters of ships, $10,000; to the masonic loan, $20,000; to the city of New Orleans, a large amount of real estate; to the city of Philadelphia, for improvement of its streets, buildings, &c., $500,000; for the improvement of canal navigation in Pennsylvania, $300,000. His principal bequest was $2,000,000, besides the residue of a certain portion of his estate out of which some legacies were to be paid, together with a plot of ground in Philadelphia, for the erection and support of a college for orphans. The most minute directions were given for the construction, size, and materials of the building, which was begun in July, 1833, and opened Jan. 1, 1848. It is surrounded by a stone wall 10 ft. high, enclosing 41 acres laid out in play grounds, grass plats, gardens, &c. The main building is the finest specimen of Grecian architecture in America, and is even said to be the finest of modern times. The outer walls, staircases, floors, and roof are of white marble; the inner walls of brick. It is in the form of a Corinthian temple, surrounded by a portico of 34 columns, each 55 ft. high and 6 ft. in diameter. Its length is 169 ft., its width 111 ft., and its height 97 ft. The entrances are on the N. and S. fronts, each door being 16 ft. wide and 32 ft. high; the E. and W. sides are pierced each by 24 windows. The structure rests on a basement of 11 steps extending around the entire building. A marble statue in the lower vestibule covers the remains of Mr. Girard. There are five other buildings within the enclosure, one of which is used as a laboratory, bakery, wash house, &c. The others stand two on each side of the main building, and are of marble, each two stories high, 125 ft. long, and 52 ft. wide. The cost of the edifices was upward of $1,930,000. As many poor white male orphans as the endowment can support are admitted between the ages of 6 and 10 years, fed, clothed, and educated, and between the ages of 14 and 18 are bound out to mechanical, agricultural, or commercial occupations. In a recent report the directors say that, the apprenticeship system as it existed in Mr. Girard's time having become obsolete, the execution of that part of the will is now difficult. By a provision of the will of the founder no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatever, is to hold any connection with the college, or be admitted to the premises even as a visitor; but the officers of the institution are required to instruct the pupils in the purest principles of morality, leaving them to adopt their own religious opinions. The officers consist of a president, secretary, two professors, five male and five female teachers, a physician, a matron, a steward, and a superintendent of manual labor; and there are about 500 beneficiaries.