Know Your History: Stephen Girard and Girard College
Although the name “Girard” is commonly spoken in Philadelphia, the reason behind it is less known. Stephen Girard’s legacy is evident by Girard Avenue that spans almost 8 miles through many diverse neighborhoods. Stephen’s proudest contribution is undoubtedly Girard College that provides free education to underprivileged youth. However, the impact he made in his lifetime is much more significant to the welfare of the entire nation than we may consider when driving across town.
Stephen Girard was born in Bordeaux on May 20, 1750. If being born in southwestern France’s largest seaport was not enough of an influence on young Stephen’s occupational ambitions, he was also born into a family of seafaring men. Stephen’s father became a ship captain in his twenties, and Stephen’s grandfather “had even earlier decided on a career at sea when only ten years old.”
Stephen was the oldest of nine children to his parents Pierre and Anne. When Stephen was 11 years old, his mother died at the age of 36. Two years later, in 1764, Stephen took his first journey at sea as an apprentice officer at only 13 years old. For the next 12 years, Stephen was a merchant between his home country of France, the lucrative trading post of the West Indies, and his future home in North America.
In 1776, Stephen Girard moved to Philadelphia to begin his own shipping business. His business techniques revolutionized the way that industries operate. When the market was down for a product, it would be stored in a warehouse until the demand increased so he could sell it at higher price. Another innovative aspect of his shipping business was the way in which his ship captains were paid. Normally a ship captain would earn a percentage of the value of their cargo load, so ship captains would choose to work only when expensive items were being shipped or when the market was doing well. Girard offered his workers a flat wage on shipments regardless how long transportation took. Captains were motivated to travel quickly and frequently with this business model, thus benefitting the economic integrity of Stephen’s company.
Trading in places like South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and China made Stephen an extremely wealthy man. His great wealth and ability to make smart business decisions put him in opportune situations. He was a member of the Freemasons, alongside Port Richmond-founder William Ball, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Simón Bolívar, and many other prestigious individuals of the time. Girard grew wealthier and more powerful as his influential connections increased.
The First Bank of the United States, championed by Alexander Hamilton, opened in Philadelphia on February 25, 1791 with a 20 year charter. When the charter expired in 1811, “Girard purchased a majority of its shares…as well as its headquarters on Philadelphia’s South Third Street. The newly established financer effectively saved the U.S. Treasury” and then began his own bank called ‘Girard Bank’.
The Treasury was saved by Girard in the following year during the War of 1812. In order to fund the United States’ defense, Girard “staked virtually everything he owned on bond purchases for the federal government; in doing so, he saved the nation’s credit, less in pursuit of profit than as an act of patriotism.” His investment accounted for 95 percent of the money raised by the entire nation. Risking his entire fortune by loaning money to the United States government, Stephen Girard showed that he was not only the richest man in the country, but also the most selfless.
With more money than one can imagine, Stephen decided to put it toward noble causes: the Pennsylvania Hospital, the Society for Relief of Distressed Masters of Ships and Their Widows (his father-in-law was a shipbuilder who died shortly before Girard’s marriage to his daughter), the Public School Fund of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, the Fuel Saving Society, and the Orphan Society, among many others. Nobody questioned the motives behind Girard’s actions. He was always trying to help people in whatever way he could, including by putting himself in mortal danger during yellow fever outbreaks in the city to care for the ill.
It is unclear why Stephen Girard gave so much to so many people. Perhaps it is because his mother died when he was only eleven, and his father was at sea, so he was forced to care for his younger eight siblings. Perhaps it is because he had a non-functioning, repulsive right eye that made him seclude himself with embarrassment for many years.
His most famous contribution to the city was left in his will, which stated that his money must be used to create a school for “poor white orphan boys, ages six to ten.” Stephen Girard died in 1831 at the age of 81, and Girard College opened January 1, 1848. Over the last 168 years, the school has given 100 percent of its students free tuition, books, room and board, and an education that progresses virtually all of its students toward higher education.
Today, Girard College is an independent, co-ed, college prep, 5-day boarding school located on a 43-acre campus, enrolling students, grades one through twelve, and awards a full scholarship with a yearly value of approximately $44,000 to every child admitted.
Girard College did not desegregate until 1968, following a fourteen year legal battle to desegregate the school. Cecil B. Moore and the Philadelphia Freedom Fighters marched around the wall encompassing the campus for seven months in 1965 and even Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to the front gates of Girard’s campus and addressed the protesters.
The first four African-American male students were finally admitted on September 11, 1968 and the first female student was admitted as a first grader in 1984, following more adjustments to the admission criteria. In 2009, Girard College named Autumn Adkins its 16th president, making her the first female chief administrator and first African-American to head the College. The current president, Clarence D. Armbrister, is the first African-American male to serve in this role.
Stephen Girard put almost his entire $7.5 million fortune into Girard College, which cnn.com equates to $120 billion in 2014 currency. His donation was the largest philanthropic donation in history at that time. A small percentage of his money went to other charities, his family, and the city of Philadelphia. Despite his many hardships, Stephen Girard was the fourth wealthiest American of all time. The only Americans richer include: Oil Monopolist John D. Rockefeller, Railroad Gambler Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Real Estate Investor John Jacob Astor.
Stephen Girard’s life is full of additional interesting stories, including his support of the Revolution from Mount Holly, New Jersey with his wife, admitting his wife to the Pennsylvania Hospital as an incurable lunatic, surviving a horse drawn carriage running over his face at the age of 80, and his success with young mistresses despite his homely appearance (taking a mistress while your wife is admitted for insanity was an acceptable practice in his time period).
Stephen Girard’s immigrant story is among the greatest that this country has ever seen. His global activity, business savvy, patriotism, and charity define his legacy. Very rarely do we see a successful businessman as honest as Girard, and perhaps never have we seen one from his time period.
Information from this article was sourced from: Britannica.com, Businessinsider.com, Encyclepedia.com, Explorepahistory.com, Forbes.com, Girardcollege.edu, Girardweb.com, Newyorktimes.com, Northerncity.library.temple.edu, Philanthropyroundtable.org, Thrillist.com, and Ushistory.org.