- Historic Sites
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
Girard now exempted Americans from his general condemnation of humanity. Rather like the convert who is more Catholic than the pope, Girard viewed his adopted country as the best in the world, populated with people who were polite, unaffected, affable, ready to help one another. Only in America, he believed, could any man who was willing to work hard improve himself so readily. Girard meanwhile improved himself so readily that, in 1813, when the U.S. government failed to sell $16,000,000 worth of bonds to recover its expenses in the disastrous war of the prior year, Girard was able to j oin a consortium with John Jacob Astor of New York and David Parish, an English financial adventurer, to underwrite $10,000,000 worth of the issue. He made a rousing profit out of this, but a measure of public service seems to have been among his motivations.
Two years later, Girard bought a farm in what is now a part of south Philadelphia, but which was then three miles from town. He was sixty-five, but he walked to his farm each afternoon, no matter what the weather, and worked in the fields alongside the Irish immigrants he had hired to tend the European crops he introduced. He was seriously interested in agricultural experiment and planted artichokes, cabbage, cauliflower, wine grapes, tarragon, French fruit and nut trees, sweet Lisbon oranges, figs, and medlars. In time, people came from everywhere in the seaboard states to see his farm and his flower gardens. He fenced his property, but he made his woodlots.free to the poor in winter, and when he trudged out to his farm, he is said to have carried a long pole over his shoulder, festooned with children’s shoes of sundry sizes. When the old man met a barefoot child, he would stop, select a pair of shoes from his pole, and give them to the child.
For all that Stephen Girard played a part in civic affairs, he remained essentially withdrawn from intimate association with others. There was no son to inherit his name and estate. He despised most of his French relatives as lazy ne’er-do-wells. He was afraid he would die before his crazy wife did, for under Pennsylvania law his property would pass to her, no matter that she was incompetent, and the law would not permit him to divorce her simply because she was mad. Twice, the state legislature refused to make an exception in his case. Fortunately for him, and perhaps for his wife, she at last perished in the asylum, leaving Girard to wonder whom he should endow with his great wealth.
Girard’s correspondence indicates that work began on his will in 1826. He was then seventy-six years old. The first draft was prepared by lawyer Horace Binney. Four years later the will was revised by William J. Duane, who like Binney was a distinguished member of the Philadelphia bar. Duane later said that he and Girard worked together behind locked doors for between five and six weeks, their conversations ranging over law, politics, religion, and architecture. Duane’s point was that there was nothing wrong with Girard’s mind, despite his advanced years, nor was Girard the subject of anyone’s undue influence. The will they produced was thirty-seven pages long, bound in leather, and, Duane said, “The outlines, the bones and muscle of the Will, were all Mr. Girard’s.” He, Duane said, had merely given “flesh and color” to Girard’s creation. At the end of their labor, Girard asked Duane if the will would stand up in court. Duane shrugged and said it probably would not. Perhaps Duane’s legal experience told him that whenever a fortune was involved, some lawyer could be found who would be clever enough to undo the work of any other.
The will left Girard’s entire fortune in trust to the city of Philadelphia. First, $366,000 was to be divided among various charities, pensioners, and Girard’s French relatives. But the vast bulk of the estate, more than $6,000,000, was to be used for public purposes. The state of Pennsylvania would receive $300,000 to improve canal navigation. The city of Philadelphia received $500,000 for the development and paving of Water Street and Delaware Avenue. This bequest was contingent upon the city’s demolishing all wooden buildings, replacing them with brick or masonry ones, and prohibiting frame construction in the future. It is for this reason that there are no frame buildings in Philadelphia today.
Then, $2,000,000 was earmarked for construction of a home for orphans on a tract of land that Girard owned in the city. Girard did not insist that this institution bear his name, but he was specific enough in virtually all other respects. He spelled out the dimensions of the wall that should encircle the property, the dimensions of the building, the fireproof materials to be used, the size of the rooms, the heights of the ceilings, the size and placement of the windows and the manner in which their sashes would open.
The income from the residue of his estate was to provide for the care and education of orphans who were to live in the home- and what was not needed for their care and for the maintenance of the establishment was to be spent upon the police and fire services of the city, in order to reduce the taxes the people would otherwise have to pay for them. The will left no doubt as to what Girard’s primary purpose was:
“I am particularly desirous to provide for such a number of poor male white orphan children, as can be trained in one institution, a better education as well as a more comfortable maintenance than they usually receive from the application of public funds.”