Stephen Girard amassed enormous wealth as a merchant and banker; if his wealth is viewed as a percentage of GDP, he was one of the five richest men in American history. That fortune was dedicated to an extensive program of philanthropy. Girard was the patron of a variety of charitable causes in his adopted home of Philadelphia, most notably offering comfort to the sick, at real personal risk, during the city’s yellow-fever outbreaks. During the War of 1812, 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. And his final bequest funded the creation of a college for orphaned boys, which was at the time the best-endowed charity in the country.
One of the five richest men in American history, Stephen Girard was known for his personal involvement in charitable efforts—like throwing himself into care for victims during periodic yellow fever outbreaks, at great personal risk.
Born in Bordeaux in 1750, Girard was the son of a sea captain and merchant. At 14 years of age, he followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as an apprentice pilot on a voyage to the West Indies. For over a decade, he plied the seas, traveling between France, the West Indies, and North America. In 1776, Girard moved to Philadelphia, where he started his own shipping business. He instituted a number of revolutionary business practices: warehousing goods until he was satisfied with prices and offering ship captains a straight wage rather than a percentage, thereby encouraging speed rather than market timing. His business expanded worldwide, and his ships traded in China and South America as well as Europe and the Caribbean.
When the charter of the First Bank of the United States expired in 1811, Girard purchased a majority of its shares (as well as its headquarters on Philadelphia’s South Third Street). The timing was fortuitous. Over the next few years, the newly established financier effectively saved the U.S. Treasury.
As the War of 1812 ground on, confidence in American credit collapsed. In late 1813, Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, was only able to sell $6 million worth of a $16 million bond issue. Gallatin approached Girard in Philadelphia and John Jacob Astor in New York, pleading with them to purchase the remainder. Girard and Astor consented, on the condition that the Madison administration agree to re-charter the Bank of the United States. It was not philanthropy in the strict sense—Girard ultimately turned a tidy profit—but it was nevertheless a saving grace to the American people, undertaken largely from patriotic motives, with a high likelihood of costing Girard his fortune.
During his lifetime, Girard supported a wide variety of civic associations in his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. He contributed to (among many other groups) the Pennsylvania Hospital, the Society for Relief of Distressed Masters of Ships and Their Widows, the Société de Bienfaisançe Francaise, the Public School Fund of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, the Fuel Saving Society, and the Orphan Society. He joined the Masons, and donated his time and money to its various charitable activities.
Such close, personal involvement was evident in the charitable efforts for which Girard was best known during his lifetime. Girard was a tireless leader in the efforts to contain and combat the yellow fever epidemics that hit Philadelphia in 1793, 1797-98, 1802, and 1820. Nineteenth-century medicine was all but helpless against the terrifying disease, which killed 5,000 city residents in 1793 alone. Those who could afford to, simply fled the city.
Not Girard. When epidemics broke out, he stayed in Philadelphia, leading relief efforts, funding hospital operations, and providing care for individuals—even bathing and feeding the dying. He routinely put his personal and business affairs to the side during epidemics. “As soon as things have quieted down a little you may be sure I shall take up my work with all the activity in my power,” he wrote to a friend in 1793. “But, for the moment, I have devoted all my time and my person, as well as my little fortune, to the relief of my fellow citizens.”
But Girard is perhaps best remembered today for his final bequest. Composed five years before his death at age 81, it left $140,000 to family members, lifelong income to several household servants, and $800,000 to the city of Philadelphia for various civic improvements. Then followed an additional $1 million, dedicated to many of the charities he had supported throughout his life. However, the largest share by far—some $7 million—was earmarked for the creation of “a college for poor white male orphans.” (Many of the children he hoped to help had been left parent-less by the Yellow Fever epidemics.)
It was a project that had long been close to Girard’s heart. There is evidence in his papers that Girard was planning the school as early as 1807—fully 24 years before his death. His painstaking instructions for the school suggest that considerable time and attention went into the plans. He specified, for example, the exact height of each ceiling on each floor, and indicated a preference that students be taught French or Spanish rather than Greek or Latin. In a highly unusual stipulation, he further demanded that “no ecclesiastical, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever in the said College.”
Girard’s heirs challenged the validity of the will based on the latter stipulation, arguing that it unlawfully excluded Christian teachings and individuals from the college. The case went to the Supreme Court, where Justice Joseph Story found against the heirs. His opinion was a landmark ruling in the history of American philanthropy, which reaffirmed the principle of donor intent.
When Girard College opened its doors in 1848, its endowment was larger than that of any other educational institution at the time—and it has paid dividends ever since. The school has graduated nearly 30,000 of the most vulnerable students imaginable. “For seven years,” reflected one graduate in a 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Stephen Girard “fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated me. He bought the milk and cereal, baked the casseroles and the cookies, provided the soap and toothbrushes, furnished the sneakers and baseball gloves, darned the socks and sweaters, sent me to the barber and the doctor, provided the books and lab supplies, and much more.”
- Steven Biondolillo, “The Father of Philanthropy,” Wall Street Journal, January 2, 1997
- Cheesman Herrick, Stephen Girard: Founder (Girard College, 1923)
- John Bach McMaster, The Life and Times of Stephen Girard, Mariner and Merchant (J. B. Lippincott Co., 1918)
- George Wilson, Stephen Girard: The Life And Times of America’s First Tycoon (Da Capo Press, 1996)