Stephen Girard, America’s Napoleon of commerce

Stephen Girard by JR Lambdin, from a portrait painted by Bass Otis in 1832

Stephen Girard by JR Lambdin, from a portrait painted by Bass Otis in 1832

Stephen Girard was a French-born, Philadelphia-based merchant, banker, land speculator and philanthropist who became one of the richest Americans of all time. The leading business titan of his day, he personally saved the US government from financial collapse during the War of 1812. Girard was a friend of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, who dined with him regularly. One of Napoleon’s generals, Henri Lallemand, married Girard’s niece, Henriette. Thus Girard makes a small but important appearance in Napoleon in America, where his money is of use to the former French emperor.

A French youth

Stephen Girard was born on May 20, 1750 near Bordeaux, France. He was the second of Pierre and Anne Girard’s ten children. Pierre was a well-to-do sea captain and merchant who had been honoured by King Louis XV for saving a ship in the Brest squadron from a fire caused by the English in 1744.

Young Stephen received a rudimentary education. His studies were interrupted by a terrible accident when he was eight years old. A splinter from some wet oyster-shells thrown onto a bonfire landed in his right eye, destroying its sight.

The grief and pain attending the catastrophe was heightened by his playmates’ subsequent thoughtless ridicule of his altered face, leaving so great an impression upon the sensitive young lad’s mind that he vividly remembered it to the day of his death. (1)

Girard’s mother died in April 1762, just before the boy’s 12th birthday. In 1764, Girard went to sea. Starting as an apprentice pilot on one of his father’s ships bound for Saint-Domingue, Girard soon learned how to handle and command a ship, and how to buy and sell cargo.

Mariner and merchant

In 1773, at age 23, Stephen Girard was licensed as a captain in the French merchant marine. The following year he sailed to New York. He bought a part interest in a vessel and traded in the West Indies.

In May 1776, the British blockade of the American colonies drove Girard into the port of Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was being finalized. Since it was nearly impossible to get shipping insurance, Girard decided to stay there and engage in the profitable business of selling supplies to the Americans. Girard’s decision to remain was swayed by the fact he’d become smitten with beautiful 18-year old Mary Lum, a shipbuilder’s daughter. He married her on June 6, 1777. With the British about to capture Philadelphia, Girard and Mary moved to a small farm in Mount Holly, New Jersey. They remained there until the British evacuated the city. On October 27, 1778, Girard officially became a citizen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Girard traded mostly with ports in France and Saint-Domingue, where his brother Jean lived. In 1787, Jean came to Philadelphia to manage the business while Girard went back to sea for a year. Over the years Girard developed a sizable trading fleet, supplementing his own ships by chartering the vessels of others. Though his ships and cargoes were often confiscated during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, his profits soared. Girard had an acute business sense, took smart risks, and worked extraordinarily hard. Vincent Nolte gives a sense of how Girard built his fortune:

His frugality bordered on avarice. Sailors’ fare was to him the best, and the freighting of vessels his favorite pursuit. The success which attended his exertions at length became unexampled; for he never had his ships insured, but always chose skilful and experienced Captains, thus saving himself the heavy expense of taking out insurance policies, and continued acting on this principle, gradually increasing his capital, more and more, until it had finally swelled to an enormous amount. Illiterate, as a French common sailor must and needs be, and scarcely able to write his own name, he called all his ships after the great authors of his native country, and thus enjoyed the sensation of beholding the American flag waving above a Montesquieu, a Voltaire, a Helvetius, and a Jean Jacques Rousseau. (2)

The madness of Mary Girard

Sadly, as Girard’s fortune grew, his marriage went downhill. By 1785, Mary began to exhibit signs of depression, violent paranoia and possibly alcoholism. This led eventually to a diagnosis of insanity. In August 1790, Girard had Mary committed to the Pennsylvania Hospital as an incurable lunatic. While there, in March 1791, Mary gave birth to a baby girl – also named Mary — whom Girard may, or may not, have fathered. The baby was sent to be nursed in the country, where she died at the age of a few months. Interestingly, Dr. Benjamin Rush – the doctor who committed Mary to the hospital – wrote, in a lecture entitled “On the Pleasures of the Mind”:

A lady in this city was cured of madness, by the birth and suckling of a child. Her husband took her child from her lest it should contract its mother’s disease; in consequence of which her madness returned. (3)

A footnote says the lady in question was Mary Lum Girard.

Yellow fever hero

In 1793, Philadelphia – which was then the capital of the United States – was hit by a yellow fever epidemic that killed 5,000 of the city’s residents. To escape the disease, most wealthy citizens fled. Stephen Girard stayed. He volunteered to supervise the running of the Bush Hill hospital. Dr. Jean Deveze wrote:

[N]ot satisfied with contributing by his wealth alone to the relief of his fellow-citizens, [Girard] attended them in person also; [he] went every morning to the hospital at Bush-hill, where his first care was not only to direct, but to inspect into the provisions and arrangements of the house; after which he visited the apartments of the sick: the unfortunate persons in the greatest dangers were those who first attracted his attention. He approached them with that philanthropy that proceeds from the heart alone, and which must give the greater lustre to his generous conduct: he encouraged, took them by the hand, and himself administered the medicines I prescribed. I even saw one of the diseased, who having nauseated his medicine, discharged the contents of his stomach upon his benefactor. What did Girard then do? … He wiped the patient’s cloaths [sic], comforted [him,]…arranged the bed, [and] inspired him with courage, by renewing in him the hope that he should recover. (4)

After the epidemic, Girard was publicly acclaimed as a hero.

The banker who saved America

Despite the uncertainties of shipping worldwide, Stephen Girard continued to expand his trade routes – to the East Indies, China and South America, as well as Europe and America. His business continued to prosper. By 1811 he was one of the richest men in America – the “Napoleon of commerce.” (5) He was also the largest shareholder in the country’s national bank, the First Bank of the United States. When Congress defeated the motion to renew the bank’s charter, Girard bought the bank and its assets. He reopened it as “Girard’s Bank.” Stephen Girard immediately became America’s most powerful banker.

Girard’s Bank became the principal source of government credit during the War of 1812 against Britain. In 1813, the US Treasury ran out of money to prosecute the war and the government attempted to raise $10 million. Girard personally covered five million dollars. He also convinced David Parish – using money borrowed from Girard – to subscribe a further three million (John Jacob Astor covered the remaining two million).   These three men – all foreign-born – probably saved the United States from losing the war.

After the war, Girard became a large stockholder in, and one of the directors of, the Second Bank of the United States.

The Bonaparte connection

Girard’s wife Mary died on September 13, 1815 at the age of 56. As per Girard’s instructions, she was buried in the lawn on the north side of the Philadelphia Hospital, in an unmarked grave. The site was covered by a clinic erected in 1868. Attempts over the last 20 years to have a tombstone placed at the hospital have proven unsuccessful, as you can read in this article in the Philadelphia Weekly Press.

Though Mary spent the last 25 years of her life in the hospital (during which time Girard tried unsuccessfully to divorce her) and Girard remained childless, he did not lack female company. He took a mistress, Sally Bickham. He also took Sally’s younger brother Martin into his care, treating him as a son and introducing him to the business world. In 1796, Sally left to marry another man. Shortly after her departure, Girard took another mistress: Polly Kenton, a laundress, twenty-six years his junior.

Girard also took in his three nieces, the daughters of his brother Jean, who died in 1803. Their mother died in 1807, leaving the young girls orphaned. Antoinetta, Caroline and Henrietta (Henriette) went to live in Girard’s Water Street home. He also educated and cared for two sons of another brother, Etienne.

When Joseph Bonaparte came to the United States in 1815, he became friends with Stephen Girard. Joseph introduced Girard and his nieces to other Napoleonic exiles in the Philadelphia area. In 1817, Henriette married one of these men: artillery general Henri Lallemand, the brother of Charles Lallemand. The Lallemand brothers drew on a $4,000 letter of credit from Stephen Girard to purchase arms and equipment for the Champ d’Asile – their failed attempt to establish a Bonapartist military colony in Texas in 1818.

Stephen Girard’s final years

Though Stephen Girard could have lived a life of ease, luxuriating in his wealth, he remained a hands-on businessman for as long as he was physically able. He became a land speculator and invested in coal mining and railroading. He also worked on his farm, which he purchased at the southern end of Philadelphia in 1797. Girard visited it almost every day, and did much of the manual labour himself. He had two stalls in the South Second Street Market, where his produce was sold. Every year he reared, fattened and killed up to 200 oxen for the provisioning of his ships. He once wrote:

When I rise in the morning my only effort is to labor so hard during the day that when night comes I may be enabled to sleep soundly. (6)

In 1830, Stephen Girard was knocked down by a horse and wagon while crossing the street in Philadelphia. The wheel ran over the left side of his face, cutting his cheek and ear and damaging his good eye. Despite his eighty years, he got up and walked unassisted to his nearby house. The wound was worse than initially thought and he was confined to bed for some time. Girard did recover and was able to return to work at the bank, but was increasingly feeble. The following year he caught the flu, which developed into pneumonia, which proved fatal. Stephen Girard died on December 26, 1831 at the age of 81. Click here to read his last words. Girard was given a huge public funeral by the city of Philadelphia. Many appreciative tributes were made regarding all he had done for the city and its inhabitants. He was buried in the vault he had built for Henri Lallemand (who predeceased him) in the Holy Trinity Catholic cemetery.

At the time of his death, Girard was the wealthiest man in America. He left most of his fortune to charitable and municipal institutions. This included an endowment to establish a boarding school for “poor, white, male orphans” in Philadelphia. Girard’s will was contested by his relatives, but was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1844. The case was considered a stinging defeat for Daniel Webster, who represented the Girard family. The boarding school opened as Girard College in 1848. Girard’s remains were reinterred there in a marble sarcophagus in the vestibule of Founder’s Hall.

Nicholas Biddle paid tribute to Girard in 1833 when the cornerstone was laid:

We all remember and most of us knew him. Plain in appearance, simple in manners, frugal in all his habits, his long life was one unbroken succession of intense and untiring industry. Wealthy, yet without indulging in the ordinary luxuries which wealth may procure – a stranger to the social circle – indifferent to political distinction – with no apparent enjoyment except in impelling and regulating the multiplied occupations of which he was the centre – whose very relaxation was only variety of labour, he passed from youth to manhood, and finally to extreme old age, the same unchanged, unvarying model of judicious and successful enterprise. At length men began to gaze with wonder on this mysterious being, who, without any of the ordinary stimulants to exertion, urged by neither his own wants, nor the wants of others – with riches already beyond the hope of avarice, yet persevered in this unceasing scheme of accumulation; and possessing so much, strove to possess more as anxiously as if he possessed nothing. They did not know that under this cold exterior, and aloof in that stern solitude of his mind, with all that seeming indifference to the world and to the world’s opinions, he still felt the deepest sympathy for human affliction, and nursed a stronger, yet a far nobler and wiser ambition to benefit mankind, than ever animated the most devoted follower of that world’s applause. His death first revealed that all this accumulation of his laborious and prolonged existence was to be the inheritance of us and our children – that for our and their comfort, the city of his adoption was to be improved and embellished, and above all, that to their advancement in science and in morals, were to be dedicated the fruits of his long years of toil. (7)

You might also enjoy:

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Napoleonic General Henri Lallemand: Improving the US artillery

Vincent Nolte: Reminiscences of an extraordinary businessman

Nicholas Biddle, proud American

Napoleon’s banker, Jacques Laffitte

  1. Henry Atlee Ingram, The Life and Character of Stephen Girard, 4th edition (Philadelphia, 1887), p. 20. This story of how Girard lost his sight may be a fabrication – he may actually have been blind in one eye since birth, or a very early age. See Thomas J. DiFilippo, Stephen Girard: The Man, His College and Estate, 2nd edition (1999), http://www.girardweb.com/girard/bookcover.htm, accessed August 31, 2014.
  2. Vincent Nolte, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres, or Reminiscences of the Life of a Former Merchant, translated from the German (New York, 1854), p. 144.
  3. Eric T. Carlson, Jeffrey L. Wollock, Patricia S. Noel, eds., Benjamin Rush’s Lectures on the Mind (Philadelphia, 1981), pp. 610-611.
  4. Jean Deveze, An Enquiry Into and Observations Upon the Causes and Effects of the Epidemic Disease which Raged in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1794), p. 26.
  5. William Mason Cornell, The History of Pennsylvania from the Earliest Discovery to the Present Time (New York, 1879), p. 509.
  6. Ingram, The Life and Character of Stephen Girard, p. 143.
  7. Account of the Proceedings on Laying the Corner Stone of the Girard College for Orphans on the 4th of July, 1833: Together with The Address Pronounced on that Occasion at the Request of the Building Committee, by Nicholas Biddle (Philadelphia, 1833), pp. 11-12.

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Plain in appearance, simple in manners, frugal in all his habits, his long life was one unbroken succession of intense and untiring industry.

Nicholas Biddle