Girard, Stephen (1750-1831)
Stephen Girard (1750-1831)
Financier and banker
Early Career. Stephen Girard rose from being a cabin boy to become one of the richest men in America, an extreme example of a rags-to-riches story that was true for many early American businessmen. Girard was born on 20 May 1750 in Bordeaux, France, and received little education due to being blind in one eye. He went to sea at the age of fourteen, and by 1773 he had a pilot’s license. In 1774 he traveled from France to the West Indies, trading for himself for the first time and ending up in Philadelphia in 1776 with some coffee and sugar and substantial debts. Hard work in an American shipping firm let him pay off his creditors and establish himself.
Shipping and Trading. Girard continued the common practice of trading for himself while also trading for his employers and gradually accumulated profits and an interest in his first ship, La Jeune Babé. The American Revolution disrupted shipping and prompted him to turn to merchandising in Pennsylvania. With the end of war he returned to foreign trade, where he was enormously successful. His excellent business instincts and careful attention to the details of the management of his ships were behind his profits. He also benefited from his early career as a common sailor, which left him with an extraordinary knowledge of shipping and shipbuilding. Over the years he owned eighteen ships, many named after the philosophers of his native France: the Voltaire, the Diderot, and the Rousseau. His shipping business continued to his death.
Banking. Girard invested his trading profits in other ventures, notably real estate and banking. As the War of 1812 approached, Girard gradually withdrew his wealth from Europe, anticipating safer investment opportunities in the United States. He supported the First Bank of the United States, purchasing stock and urging Congress to renew its charter in 1810. Congress refused, and Girard bought the bank’s building and accounts, starting a private bank with a capital of $1.2 million. This was a huge amount of money for the time, and Girard’s bank quickly established a national credit system with important contacts in England and Europe. The strength of the bank allowed Girard, along with other wealthy men such as John Jacob Astor, to help finance the War of 1812, to their personal benefit as well as the public good. After the war the United States decided to establish a national bank, and Girard took the leading role, subscribing for the full $3 million worth of stock in the Second Bank of the United States, when no other investors were willing to take the risk. Girard continued his private bank at the same time, and this also lasted to his death. In his later years Girard bought a farm in South Philadelphia and saw no contradiction in engaging in huge financial ventures and planting fruit trees at the same time. He died on his farm on 26 December 1831, leaving much of his wealth to charity, including what is today Girard College in Philadelphia.
Donald R. Adams, Finance and Enterprise in Early America: A Study of Stephen Girard’s Bank, 1812–1831 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978);
George Wilson, Stephen Girard: America’s First Tycoon (Conshohocken, Penn.: Combined Books, 1995).
Stephen Girard (1750-1831), French-born American merchant and philanthropist, had a successful career in business and banking and became one of the wealthiest men in America.
Stephen Girard was born near Bordeaux on May 20, 1750. Although his father, a burgess of the city and a pensioner of the Crown, exercised considerable influence in Bordeaux, Girard's early life was not pleasant. At the age of 14 he left home, signing on as a cabin boy on a trading vessel sailing for Santo Domingo. He made numerous trips to the West Indies. In 1771 the 21-year-old Girard was licensed as an acting captain. His first voyage as a commanding officer was not financially profitable, and he found himself in debt to his Bordeaux creditors. He was able to repay his debts, but the venture helped convince him that his future lay in America.
At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Girard was engaged in the coastal trade. Forced into Delaware Bay by the British blockade, he brought his ship to Philadelphia. There he sold the vessel and in 1776 opened a small store. The following year he married Mary Lum, daughter of a local shipbuilder.
After the British evacuated Philadelphia, Girard became an American citizen and began to establish himself as a merchant. After early disappointments, his sense of business and willingness to work hard paid off. At the height of his career he was one of the richest men in America.
Girard's success as a merchant stimulated interests in real estate, insurance companies, and banking. He had been a strong supporter of the First Bank of the United States and worked to get the bank's charter renewed. When Congress refused to recharter the bank, he purchased the building and in 1812 opened the Bank of Stephen Girard in Philadelphia. Because of his connections with the Federal Treasury and other banks in the United States and Europe, he was able to help the government during the financial crisis caused by the War of 1812. The government's efforts to obtain a loan of $16 million proved unsatisfactory until Girard, John Jacob Astor, and David Parish took over the unsubscribed portion and sold it to the public. Following the war, Girard played a major role in the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States.
Girard's humanitarianism became apparent early in his career. During the French Revolution he had provided valuable assistance to French refugees, and when a yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia in 1793, he not only helped care for the sick but also worked to clean up the conditions that had created the epidemic. Girard's will clearly indicated his philanthropy: the bulk of his estate, over $6 million, went to the city of Philadelphia in the form of a trust fund to be used for educating poor, white orphan boys. As a result, Girard College was founded.
One of the most interesting accounts of Girard's life is Cheesman A. Herrick, Stephen Girard, Founder (1923). Harry Emerson Wildes, Lonely Midas: The Story of Stephen Girard (1943), is a sympathetic biography.
Wilson, George, Stephen Girard: America's first tycoon, Conshohocken, Pa.: Combined Books, 1995. □