Saturday, August 30, 2014
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David L. Cohen on Stephen Girard

"His was our nation's first fully-integrated vertical conglomerate - from land to raw materials, to transportation by land and then by sea, to finance"

David L. Cohen on Stephen Girard

Artist´s rendition of Stephen Girard by Norm Ressler (Inquirer File Illustration)
Artist's rendition of Stephen Girard by Norm Ressler (Inquirer File Illustration)

Philadelphia millionaire Stephen Girard, dying childless in 1831, left his fortune to build Delaware Ave. and other public works - and especially to Girard College, the city-administered free school for orphans which still occupies the 40-acre walled compound Girard designed for it in North Philadelphia.

Who was he? Comcast executive and Penn board chairman David L. Cohen takes the stage tonight at Independence Seaport Museum to review Sam Katz's new 18-minute film about Girard and give an outline of his broader story. The film is being screened as consultants to the Board of City Trusts weigh the future of the school, whose enrollment has fallen by more than two-thirds from its peak.. 

"The Stephen Girard story is too often focused through the prism of the 1960s civil rights struggle to integrate Girard College," Cohen says. (Cohen was law clerk to the judge who ordered the formerly all-white school to admit blacks, and part of his talk summarizes the long litigation to defend Girard's will against other heirs - and to break it, so blacks and girls could go to Girard.) "His story, however, is much more complex..." (From Cohen's prepared remarks about Stephen Girard's career:)


Born in France in 1750, Girard was a sea captain and entrepreneur who arrived in Philadelphia on June 6, 1776, just a few days before Thomas Jefferson started writing the Declaration of Independence...

Philadelphia was then the largest city in America, with a population of 35,000, and the second largest city in the English-speaking world. It may be relevant to note that slavery was legal and widespread in Philadelphia, and slaves were sold at weekly auctions outside the London Coffee House at Front and Market Streets, just a few blocks from where Girard lived and opened his first store. In fact, Girard himself was a slave owner.

Girard was a merchant, a trader, and later in life had investments in banking, coal, and railroads. Ultimately, Girard became the wealthiest man in America – and literally one of the five richest men in our history, ranking just ahead of Bill Gates...

The first known sign of Girard’s sense of civic responsibility occurred in the summer of 1793. Philadelphia experienced a yellow fever epidemic. Philadelphia’s upper class fled the city in droves. Washington left, as did Governor Mifflin. Only those who could not afford to leave stayed, including a few leaders... People were shocked when Girard said he would take charge of Bush Hill, the private home taken by the city as a "go to die" hospital. Stephen Girard had such a promising future. Why would he risk his life in this way, people wondered?

My own sense is that Stephen Girard understood that his city and the nation were imperiled. He saw that everyone had left. He knew that if he didn't step forward, then the future of his adopted country was at risk...

When we think about successful people, we throw around a modern term - multi-tasking. I like to think I am one of those (or maybe I just suffer from adult attention deficit disorder) Girard’s multi-tasking would put any of us to shame.

He made money from selling his cargoes and used it to develop more ships and sell more cargoes. He gave money and support to French refugees fleeing St. Domingue (now Haiti). He supported the revolutionary initiatives in South America led by Simon Bolivar, by financing arms sales, long before there was something called foreign aid in the U.S. and long before (Iran-contra arms financier Lt. Col.) Oliver North was born.

He developed a farm in Passyunk Township − what is today South Philadelphia in the neighborhood we call Girard Estates − and loved to go there as often as possible, getting his hands dirty, planting and sowing, and always generating profits.

Girard invested in Alexander Hamilton's First Bank of the United States and became one its largest shareholders. Soon he was on the Bank's board and he became a student of banking. When the First Bank's charter was not renewed in 1811, Girard bought its assets − a building and furnishings − for $115,000 and deposited another $1.2 million from his own accounts. The result: Stephen Girard's Bank. Instantly, Stephen Girard became the nation's most powerful banker.

In 1812, the competition between the U.S. and the British over sea lanes spilled into a war, one this nation was ill prepared to fight both militarily and financially. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin made several pilgrimages to Philadelphia to solicit Girard’s help to finance the war. Why? Because the American treasury was effectively bankrupt.

Girard and Gallatin couldn't reach terms, so Gallatin tried to do a public offering for $16 million. He was only able to sell $6 million. Gallatin knew there was only one solution − private financing of the war − and only one person capable of providing it − Stephen Girard. Girard provided $8 million. John Jacob Astor came up with the remaining $2 million, at the request of Stephen Girard.

Girard loved to own and develop real estate and had a keen eye for value. He wanted to make the city more beautiful and built 3 and 4 story row homes, many of which stand today, on Spruce Street between 3rd and 4th. His properties also included the lots on Market at 10th street and coal lands in Schuylkill and Lehigh Counties and in Louisiana and Kentucky.

Girard built railroads and canals to move the Pennsylvania coal (from) the ground he owned. That coal came down the Schuylkill and the Delaware and found its way into Philadelphia’s factories and onto Girard's ships. Girard envisioned a great port and made the construction of Delaware Avenue the condition precedent for the release of his considerable fortune to the city for its other uses.

Girard invested in and controlled his entire supply chain. His was our nation’s first fully integrated vertical conglomerate – from land to raw materials, to transportation by land and then by sea, to finance – Girard controlled it all. His vision – and success – was breathtaking...

While he was quietly philanthropic during his lifetime, he never chose to bring attention to his generosity. His will was another matter.

Girard died on December 26, 1831. His will was more than 10,000 words long. His first bequest was to Pennsylvania Hospital, which had cared for his mentally ill wife for many years. His second bequest was to free his slave and give her a sufficient income to be independent for the rest of her life. So much for Girard being a racist slave owner.

But his most famous bequest was his gift of $2 million – an unheard of fortune at the time – for construction of a boarding school for poor white male orphans. The will also left the residue of his estate, millions of dollars that ultimately became hundreds of millions of dollars, to operate and maintain the school in perpetuity...

Girard's will specified the site for the school (at the time, the site was in the northern suburbs of Philadelphia, but became a part of the City in 1854), as well as detailed building plans, including the 14 inch thick, 10 foot high walls that surround the school to this day. The bequest was accepted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the City of Philadelphia.

The very notion of a school for poor boys was, for the times, so unique that it seemed revolutionary. For nearly 17 decades, Girard College has produced generations of graduates for whom life's road might have been entirely different but for the vision and resources that Girard provided. Philadelphia's ranks of leadership are filled with Girard College alums. With the legal fight behind it, the College's student body is largely filled with African American, Asian, and Latino students, boys and girls, whose future will be brighter for this educational opportunity still being afforded by the generosity and vision of Stephen Girard.

In the 1990s, a Wall Street Journal editorial described him as the father of modern philanthropy. I think that among all of the accolades and descriptions pegged to Girard, that is the one that probably would have given him the most satisfaction...

He truly marched to his own drummer. I think Girard was more focused on what his wealth enabled him to do for others than on its size. That attitude is something every student of his school and every citizen of his city and his country can carry forward from his life. 

Stephen Girard: merchant, farmer, banker, citizen. patriot, philanthropist. By helping to preserve America's freedom and independence, Stephen Girard was preserving his own freedom and independence. And by investing in the future of his country, he was leaving all of us the ultimate legacy.

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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