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Legacy Of Stephen Girard
Wills are forever— or so we like to think. But what happens when they offend the changing public interest? Consider the curious
June/July 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 4
When Stephen Girard died in 1831, he was perhaps the richest man in America, possessed of more than $6,000,000. With the exception of a few comparatively niggling bequests, he left his entire fortune in trust to the city of Philadelphia. This utterly astonished everyone who knew him, and it particularly astonished his outraged relatives, who at once attacked the will on the ground that its provisions were against the public interest.
The Supreme Court of that day ruled against the relatives, and there matters remained for well over a century, until the Supreme Court of 1957 decreed that Stephen Girard’s principal bequest not only was against the public interest, but was in violation of the Constitution of the United States.
Throughout the long story of Stephen Girard and his will, which spans almost the entire history of our republic, the central issue has always been one of prejudice. The somewhat sinister moral at the end of it is that you and I have no rights today that may not be taken away from us tomorrow by due process of law. The law of our land is an infinitely flexible instrument, designed to serve the needs of a society that may wish at any time to change its mind as to what its fundamental principles are. Here, the fundamental principle at issue was the one asserting that a man has a right to bestow his property as he sees fit. This principle now has been put aside, partly on the ground that times have changed since 1831, and partly because of wishful thinking.
“Given everything we know of Mr. Girard,” the ultimate Court opinion said, “it is inconceivable that in this changed world he would not be quietly happy that his cherished project has raised its sights with the times and joyfully recognized that all human beings are created equal.”
No one doubts that a court should search the mind of a dead man in order to construe his intentions, but never has such a search led to a more improbable conclusion. Unless the Justice wrote those lines with deliberate irony, he must have been totally ignorant of the mind and character of Stephen Girard.
Girard was born in a suburb of Bordeaux on May 20,1750, the eldest son and second of ten children of a merchant mariner. The boy lost the sight in his right eye in infancy, and was halforphaned at twelve when his mother died. He was a solitary and imperious child given to fits of temper, and was unmercifully teased for his poor vision, ugliness, and awkwardness by the neighborhood children. He was not sent to school but was put to work in his father’s countinghouse when he was twelve. There is reason to believe that he found such happiness as he knew only in this work—despite the fact that his father was a man-grinding taskmaster. Then, because every male Girard since 1642 had gone to sea, nothing was more natural than for fourteen-yearold Stephen to sign on as a pilotin , or apprentice officer, on a ship trading to Haiti. He received his master’s license when only twenty-three, and three years later, in 1776, he arrived in Philadelphia—chased into port by storms, and a blockading British fleet, whereupon the rebellious Americans commandeered his ship for the Pennsylvania navy.
As a Frenchman, Girard might have claimed personal neutrality in the war then in progress between Great Britain and her American colonies. But he knew that neither side paid much attention to such claims, and he could not have returned to France, in any case, for he had defaulted on debts owed to Bordeaux commission merchants and would have been arrested the moment he touched French soil. All things considered, then, Girard decided to remain ashore in Philadelphia. While awaiting better times, he opened a store in Water Street on the proceeds of the forced sale of his ship and of its cargo, which he traded for an inventory of rum, cider, salt, turpentine, whiskey, flour, tobacco, black cotton handkerchiefs, sugar, lumber, lard, butter, beef, and wheat.
Girard’s character had by this time been formed. It was basically that of a lonely, work-driven cynic. As a young sailor, he knew the value of wine and women. He knew it was more profitable to sell wine than drink it. He knew that women were necessary for purposes of hygiene, as he put it, but that their company was expensive. The expense, however, could be offset by having the woman keep house in addition to performing her function as a hygienic device. Acting on this knowledge, he sold wine in his shop while drinking only a glass a day himself, and he married a penniless orphan servant. He spoke only broken English; she, no French; but then he had not married for purposes of conversation.
No one can say what kind of man Stephen Girard might have become had he not proved sterile and had his young wife not soon gone insane. By all accounts, she was a sluttish, boy-crazy eighteen-year-old when he married her, and it shortly appeared that nymphomania was the least of her mental problems.
The next year, Stephen Girard became a citizen of Pennsylvania. Just as it could not be said he married for love, so it could not be said he swore his allegiance out of love for his new country. He became a citizen because he was ordered to become one if he intended to continue to do business in Pennsylvania. His one contribution to the cause of freedom took the form of his hiring an armed crew of ruffians to steal slaves from Tories so that he could sell them to patriots. As matters turned out, his ruffians stole from the wrong side, and a court ordered the slaves returned to their owners.