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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
Philadelphias knew Stephen Girard, mariner and merchant, to be a miser and a misanthrope. They despised him for a cheat, and when he put his wife away in an insane asylum, they despised him for making a mistress of his housekeeper. Girard never sought a place in Philadelphia society, and he would not have been accorded one if he had, but then it would seem that he was virtually friendless by choice. He went to his business before dawn and stayed there into the night. “My love of work is the greatest pleasure that I have upon this globe,” he wrote. Girard made his money by smuggling; by bribery; by profiteering in scarce commodities during the Revolution; by shipping wrongly labeled cargoes in ships supplied with false papers; by running opium into China; by being glacially slow in paying his creditors and instantaneous in dunning his debtors; by cheating his own brother; by selling cheap French vin ordinaire as expensive port because, he said, Philadelphias could not taste the difference. As one of his biographers wrote, Girard was “undisturbed by fine-spun theories of strict obedience to law.”
By such means he soon and greatly prospered, becoming something of an early-day diversified multinational corporation all in himself, sending ships to trade around the world while running a real estate business, a banking business, and a commission merchant business out of the countinghouse in the rear of his store. His experience led him to judge his fellow men harshly. The French, he said, were grasping and dishonest. The English were “worthless and contemptible,” and not to be trusted. The Germans were worse than the English, while the Dutch would “sell their fathers to make two percent.” And as for the Chinese, they “cheated like Infidel Jews.” His view of himself was that he was punctual, honest, reputable, and industrious.
If Girard’s view of himself seems somewhat inaccurate, it was nevertheless relatively correct; he did nothing that other businessmen did not do; he simply did it better. The morality of the business world was not of his making; he accepted it for what it was, and no one who reads today’s newspapers can think that the international business houses of the eighteenth century were any less moral than those of our own day. In any case, Girard worked hard and all day long; he paid derisive wages to his staff and his sailors, nothing at all to his mistress-housekeeper, and he spent almost nothing on himself. By all accounts, he was a businessman of genius, keeping in his head a running knowledge of all the world’s fluctuating currencies and of every nation’s current and future resources and needs as affected by the changing political situations in a century of wars and revolutions. He was curt and demanding; his orders were detailed and meticulous, and he required absolute and unthinking obedience to the very last letter of his instructions. He left no room for, doubt that he meant every word he said, and this, as we shall see, was a matter of importance in the construction of his will.
In the summer of 1793, yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia. George Washington and many of the other Founding Fathers raced out to Germantown to escape it. Girard did not. “Perhaps you have heard it said that the plague has broken out in Philadelphia,” he wrote to a New York business associate. “I beg you will not believe this. It is only a malignant fever which, by the pernicious treatment of our doctors, has sent many of our citizens to another world.” To one business correspondent, he wrote that “Our Board of Health, our College of Physicians, or rather, jackasses … have created an unparalleled state of alarm” by calling the fever contagious. No more than anyone else did Girard know what caused yellow fever, but he did observe that the doctors’ advice to fire off muskets and wear garlic did nothing to abate it. He had a strong suspicion that the disease was not highly contagious but he knew it was bad for business, so he joined two other brave men in establishing a hospital where they personally bathed victims, fed them liquids, made them as comfortable as possible in a cool and scrupulously clean establishment—and hoped for the best. Evidently his concern was not entirely self-serving. He gave money to the hospital, he gave his time, and he was deeply disturbed by the plight of 194 children orphaned by the fever. Many were put to work by the families who adopted them. Girard protested that the commonwealth should establish an orphanage, but no action was taken on his suggestion.
As Stephen Girard grew older and richer, his character seemed to change. No one knows precisely why, but he gradually became less reclusive, even began to take part in political affairs. As his least friendly biographer wrote, “Mr. Girard discharged his [civic] duties with exemplary zeal, fidelity, and rigour. He was repeatedly elected a member of Councils; and gave his time, which, to him, was always money, to the improvement of the city. … He held it as a maxim that no man had a right to decline public stations if his fellow citizens called him to fill them: the public interest being always paramount to individual convenience. A more orthodox and practical republican never lived than Stephen Girard.”