Stephen Girard was born in Bordeaux, France, in the year 1750, to a seafaring father and his wife (Pierre and Anne Girard). He was the oldest of nine siblings, without formal education. There wasn´t a public system of education in France until after the French Revolution. His education came from his parents and tutors. The lure of the sea was something natural to Girard. His father became a ship’s captain, while in his twenties, and his grandfather even more early. He had been decided for a career at sea when it was only ten years old. That influence likely affected the trends of Stephen Girard toward the water. Girard lost the vision of his left eye when he was still a child. A story says that he was sitting in a bonfire when someone threw a shell of a clam, that exploded and wounded him. His mother died when he was 12 years old, and soon after that, his father remarried. Ongoing pregnancies and motherhood, one over the other, contributed to her death in April 1762. His mother’s death had a great impact on Stephen Girard and this helped to urge him to the sea at the beginning of 1764.
Into the Sea
He sailed from Bordeaux, in the brig Pelerin as a pilotin, a trainee official. The process of learning as a pilotin included many nuances of ships maneuvers normally handled only by the master of the vessel. With this vote of confidence, he was able to capture not only the demands of handling and commanding a ship on the high seas, but he also learned much about how to purchase and sell goods, at that time, mainly sugar and coffee. During those long trips, Stephen read and gave instructions to himself, expanding his intellect. By age 23, he won command of his first ship, a brigantine named Sally. In 1773, Girard was formally approved as a captain of the French merchant navy by the French Government. He sailed to New York in 1774, and came into contact with traders and sailors of that city, and began to import coffee and sugar from the West Indies colonies while selling colonial goods abroad. When the British blockade of 1776 prevented him from returning from New York, he embarked instead to Philadelphia and was installed there just as the revolution began.
A new life in Philadelphia
As French, he was not very fond of the British and saw the opportunity of helping the Nation in its brave determination for achieving the independence. No using any combative way, but in the profitable business of supply. It was not only the management of the trade companies that required his attention at the home, in the United States. In 1776, he met, courted, and eventually married a girl of eighteen years of age. A beauty, and native of Philadelphia, María Lum. In 1778, Girard became a U.S. citizen. His fortune continued to grow through the revolution as he evaded the British blockade and continued managing his shipping companies. He began to trade with China and benefited from the regulation of the central Government of shipping, caused by the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. However, his world was ruined by his young wife battles with mental illness. In August 1790, Mary was a committed to the Pennsylvania Hospital as an “incurable mental lunatic.” She lived there for the next 25 years, and Girard did not skimp expenses for her maintenance. She gave birth to a daughter who died in infancy. He was never married and had no children.
During this time, in addition to the efforts of shipping, there was the sale of weapons to the Revolutionaries of South America, among them was Simon Bolivar. And the acquisition of lands that includes a farm in what today is the South of Philadelphia, the area is now known as the Girard Estates.
First Bank of the United States
In 1791, when Congress created the first Bank of the United States, Girard made a great investment. By 1811, he was the largest investor. He bought the Bank and its assets, making him the most powerful banker in the nation almost overnight.
When the War of 1812 broke out, America was hardly able to stand against a superiority in number and equipment. As a Nation in the making, it would need resources and money. Girard lent the Government $8 million, risking his fortune without asking for concessions. He literally kept the Government solvent until the Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the war in December 1814. America once more retreated to a peace that was obtained largely because one man, Girard. He represented the confidence in his Nation that others lacked. Bold and brave, wise and with an unruly spirit, Girard gave America a lesson in courage and love for the country that should have been recorded by historians with greater understanding, no doubt with a deeper passion and eloquence.
In 1793, yellow fever came to the city. Citizens by the thousands escaped the city, including President George Washington. But Girard was remained for the care of the sick and the dying, making the transformation of Bush Hill, a mansion just outside the limits of the city, into a hospital. Through his tireless efforts, those affected with the disease, in the care of Girard and the staff of Bush Hill, gained a good chance of survival. At the end of October of that year, with the arrival of cold weather, the horrible disease and the number of deaths associated with it, began to decline. The prominence of Girard as a successful trader already was widely recognized in the circles business, but with these actions, he was acclaimed as a public hero.
Despite his wealth, he was a businessman with hands on work. In the transport, agriculture and the banking sector, he was visible in all areas of the workplace, often carrying out domestic tasks, physically demanding in defiance of his advanced age. As his fortune grew, Girard invested, mostly in real estate. Among its holdings: about 30,000 acres in the counties of Schuylkill and Columbia in Pennsylvania (which he purchased by accident in an auction). The land had great value in coal and wood (its coal licenses still continue to produce). He was also the owner of the “the choicest land and buildings” in what is now known as Old City, including whole squares, as well as factories, warehouses, docks, and 404 double-decker and 71 three-floor houses in South Philadelphia. At age 79, he began investing in trains, the vehicle that would carry the coal to the markets he envisioned would be there.
Death and will
At the time of his death, Girard was America’s richest man. He died at age 81 on December 26, 1831. Patrick Dwyer found two possible stories about his death: first, the flu was taking a heavy toll in Philadelphia. He contracted a disease that quickly developed into pneumonia and proved fatal. Secondly, the wounds he suffered when he was hit by a car in the 2nd and market street earlier that year, took him away.
In his will, he gave almost his entire fortune local Philadelphia and New Orleans charities, as well as the establishment of Girard College, a boarding school for “male, poor, white orphans” in the terrain of his property in Fairmount. His will specifically forbade any clergy teaching in his school or even entering the campus, and established a wall 10 feet high around the school to protect students of external worldly vices. In 1968, after a long legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students should be admitted without distinction of race or color; in 1982, the girls were admitted for the first time.