- 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
It would thus almost seem that Girard’s decision as to what to do with his money was to leave it to himself. He had been a halforphan, he had married an orphan, he had seen what happened to orphans in Philadelphia. Evidently, it never crossed his mind to adopt an orphan; he seemed to have been unable to open his heart to any particular person. Better than most men of his time, Girard seems to have understood the advisability of educating girls; he had paid for the education of two of his nieces. But his will did not endow female orphans, only males. He had also given money to a school for black children, but his will did not endow black orphans. Nor was his specification of poor, male, white orphans a general one: the selection was to be made first from Philadelphia orphans, next from Pennsylvania ones, third from those born in New York City, and finally from those born in New Orleans. In sum, he first endowed those born in the city and state where he had made his fortune, and from the two American cities into which he had first traded as a young sea captain. His choice of beneficiaries may thus be seen as an act of selfbenevolence: he would live forever, generation after generation, in the likeness of himself.
Like many self-made men with little education, Stephen Girard held strong opinions as to what a proper curriculum should be. The boys who lived in his college, as he called it in his will, would undergo an eight-year program of “reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, geography, navigation, surveying, practical mathematics, astronomy, natural, chemical and experimental philosophy, the French and Spanish language (I do not forbid, but I do not recommend the Greek and Latin languages)—and such other learning and science as the capacities of the several scholars may merit or warrant.”
“I would have them taught facts and things, rather than words or signs,” the old man wrote in his will, adding that his desire was “that all the instructors and teachers in the college shall take pains to instill into the minds of the scholars the purest principles of morality , so that, on their entrance into active life they may, from inclination and habit, evince benevolence towards their fellow creatures, and a love of truth, sobriety and industry , adopting at the same time such religious tenets as their matured reason may enable them to prefer.”
He otherwise required that the boys be fed “with plain but wholesome food, clothed with plain but decent apparel (no distinctive dress ever to be worn) and lodged in a plain but safe manner.” The latter provision left the way open for segregation by age and size, so as to avoid the evils of the barracks and fag system then common to boarding schools. Girard went on to say that these sober, hard-working, plain-living and pragmatically educated young republican replicas of himself were to be educated by teachers chosen “on account of their merit, and not through favour or intrigue,” and that they not be churchmen.
“I enjoin and require,” he said, “that no ecclesiastic missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever, in the said college, nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises.” The reason for this prohibition, he said, was to ensure that the boys’ young minds “be free from the excitement which clashing doctrines … are so apt to produce.”
In all, the will was the explicitly detailed work of a strongminded man of definite opinions, set forth in clear, unambiguous language. No one who knew the mind and character of Stephen Girard, and who read his will, could doubt that he meant every word, and that he meant no more, and no less, than what he wrote. All that remained to be seen was whether the will could withstand attack, and attack was instantly forthcoming.
In the last few years of Girard’s life, a rumor spread that the old man intended to leave his fortune to a school of some sort, and word of this reached his always importunate French relatives. Two of them happened to be in Philadelphia when Girard died, at age eighty-one, the year after the final draft of the will was written. In somewhat unseemly haste, they demanded that Mr. Duane tell them what the will contained even before Stephen Girard was buried. We can imagine Mr. Duane’s contemptuous amusement as he read, and the fury of the French Girards. Such small provision for themselves was scandalous, they said, it was unnatural—and they hastened off to hire a lawyer.
Their suit eventually reached the United States Supreme Court in 1844, with Daniel Webster appearing for the relatives, and Horace Binney on behalf of “The Mayor, Aldermen and Citizens of Philadelphia, the Executors of Stephen Girard.…”