1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Girard, Stephen

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GIRARD, STEPHEN (1750–1831), American financier and philanthropist, founder of Girard College in Philadelphia, was born in a suburb of Bordeaux, France, on the 20th of May 1750. He lost the sight of his right eye at the age of eight and had little education. His father was a sea captain, and the son cruised to the West Indies and back during 1764–1773, was licensed captain in 1773, visited New York in 1774, and thence with the assistance of a New York merchant began to trade to and from New Orleans and Port au Prince. In May 1776 he was driven into the port of Philadelphia by a British fleet and settled there as a merchant; in June of the next year he married Mary (Polly) Lum, daughter of a shipbuilder, who, two years later, after Girard’s becoming a citizen of Pennsylvania (1778), built for him the “Water Witch,” the first of a fleet trading with New Orleans and the West Indies—most of Girard’s ships being named after his favourite French authors, such as “Rousseau,” “Voltaire,” “Helvétius” and “Montesquieu.” His beautiful young wife became insane and spent the years from 1790 to her death in 1815 in the Pennsylvania Hospital. In 1810 Girard used about a million dollars deposited by him with the Barings of London for the purchase of shares of the much depreciated stock of the Bank of the United States—a purchase of great assistance to the United States government in bolstering European confidence in its securities. When the Bank was not rechartered the building and the cashier’s house in Philadelphia were purchased at a third of the original cost by Girard, who in May 1812 established the Bank of Stephen Girard. He subscribed in 1814 for about 95% of the government’s war loan of $5,000,000, of which only $20,000 besides had been taken, and he generously offered at par shares which upon his purchase had gone to a premium. He pursued his business vigorously in person until the 12th of February 1830, when he was injured in the street by a truck; he died on the 26th of December 1831. His public spirit had been shown during his life not only financially but personally; in 1793, during the plague of yellow fever in Philadelphia, he volunteered to act as manager of the wretched hospital at Bush Hill, and with the assistance of Peter Helm had the hospital cleansed and its work systematized; again during the yellow fever epidemic of 1797–1798 he took the lead in relieving the poor and caring for the sick. Even more was his philanthropy shown in his disposition by will of his estate, which was valued at about $7,500,000, and doubtless the greatest fortune accumulated by any individual in America up to that time. Of his fortune he bequeathed $116,000 to various Philadelphia charities, $500,000 to the same city for the improvement of the Delaware water front, $300,000 to Pennsylvania for internal improvements, and the bulk of his estate to Philadelphia, to be used in founding a school or college, in providing a better police system, and in making municipal improvements and lessening taxation. Most of his bequest to the city was to be used for building and maintaining a school “to provide for such a number of poor male white orphan children . . . a better education as well as a more comfortable maintenance than they usually receive from the application of the public funds.” His will planned most minutely for the erection of this school, giving details as to the windows, doors, walls, &c.; and it contained the following phrase: “I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any duty whatsoever in the said college; nor shall any such person ever be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor, within the premises appropriated to the purposes of the said college. . . . I desire to keep the tender minds of orphans . . . free from the excitements which clashing doctrines and sectarian controversy are so apt to produce.” Girard’s heirs-at-law contested the will in 1836, and they were greatly helped by a public prejudice aroused by the clause cited; in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1844 Daniel Webster, appearing for the heirs, made a famous plea for the Christian religion, but Justice Joseph Story handed down an opinion adverse to the heirs (Vidals v. Girard’s Executors). Webster was opposed in this suit by John Sergeant and Horace Binney. Girard specified that those admitted to the college must be white male orphans, of legitimate birth and good character, between the ages of six and ten; that no boy was to be permitted to stay after his eighteenth year; and that as regards admissions preference was to be shown, first to orphans born in Philadelphia, second to orphans born in any other part of Pennsylvania, third to orphans born in New York City, and fourth to orphans born in New Orleans. Work upon the buildings was begun in 1833, and the college was opened on the 1st of January 1848, a technical point of law making instruction conditioned upon the completion of the five buildings, of which the principal one, planned by Thomas Ustick Walter (1804–1887), has been called “the most perfect Greek temple in existence.” To a sarcophagus in this main building the remains of Stephen Girard were removed in 1851. In the 40 acres of the college grounds there were in 1909 18 buildings (valued at $3,350,000), 1513 pupils, and a total “population,” including students, teachers and all employes, of 1907. The value of the Girard estate in the year 1907 was $35,000,000, of which $550,000 was devoted to other charities than Girard College. The control of the college was under a board chosen by the city councils until 1869, when by act of the legislature it was transferred to trustees appointed by the Common Pleas judges of the city of Philadelphia. The course of training is partly industrial—for a long time graduates were indentured till they came of age—but it is also preparatory to college entrance.

See H. A. Ingram, The Life and Character of Stephen Girard (Philadelphia, 1884), and George P. Rupp, “Stephen Girard—Merchant and Mariner,” in 1848–1898: Semi-Centennial of Girard College (Philadelphia, 1898).