CHAPTER I. STEPHEN GIRARD.
One May morning, in the year 1776, the mouth of the Delaware Bay was shrouded in a dense fog, which cleared away toward noon, and revealed several vessels just off the capes. From one of these, a sloop, floated the flag of France and a signal of distress. An American ship ran alongside the stranger, in answer to her signal, and found that the French captain had lost his reckoning in a fog, and was in total ignorance of his whereabouts. His vessel, he said, was bound from New Orleans to a Canadian port, and he was anxious to proceed on his voyage. The American skipper informed him of his locality, and also apprised him of the fact that war had broken out between the colonies and Great Britain, and that the American coast was so well lined with British cruisers that he would never reach port but as a prize. "What shall I do?" cried the Frenchman, in great alarm. "Enter the bay, and make a push for Philadelphia," was the reply. "It is your only chance."
The Frenchman protested that he did not know the way, and had no pilot. The American captain, pitying his distress, found him a pilot, and even loaned him five dollars, which the pilot demanded in advance. The sloop got under weigh again, and passed into the Delaware, beyond the defenses which had been erected for its protection, just in time to avoid capture by a British war vessel which now made its appearance at the mouth of the bay. Philadelphia was reached in due time, and, as the war bade fair to put an end to his voyages, the captain sold the sloop and her cargo, of which he was part owner, and, entering a small store in Water Street, began the business of a grocer and wine-bottler. His capital was small, his business trifling in extent, and he himself labored under the disadvantage of being almost unable to speak the English language. In person he was short and stout, with a dull, repulsive countenance, which his bushy eyebrows and solitary eye (being blind in the other) made almost hideous. He was cold and reserved in manner, and was disliked by his neighbors, the most of whom were afraid of him.
This man was Stephen Girard, who was afterward destined to play so important a part in the history of the city to which the mere chances of war sent him a stranger.
He was born at Bordeaux, in France, on the 21st of May, 1750, and was the eldest of the five children of Captain Pierre Girard, a mariner of that city. His life at home was a hard one. At the age of eight years, he discovered that he was blind in one eye, and the mortification and grief which this discovery caused him appear to have soured his entire life. He afterward declared that his father treated him with considerable neglect, and that, while his younger brothers were sent to college, he was made to content himself with the barest rudiments of an education, with merely a knowledge of reading and writing. When he was quite young, his mother died, and, as his father soon married again, the severity of a step-mother was added to his other troubles. When about thirteen years of age, he left home, with his father's consent, and began, as a cabin-boy, the life of a mariner. For nine years he sailed between Bordeaux and the French West Indies, rising steadily from his position of cabin-boy to that of mate. He improved his leisure time at sea, until he was not only master of the art of navigation, but generally well informed for a man in his station. His father possessed sufficient influence to procure him the command of a vessel, in spite of the law of France which required that no man should be made master of a ship unless he had sailed two cruises in the royal navy and was twenty-five years old. Gradually Girard was enabled to amass a small sum of money, which he invested in cargoes easily disposed of in the ports to which he sailed. Three years after he was licensed to command, he made his first appearance in the port of Philadelphia. He was then twenty-six years old.
From the time of his arrival in Philadelphia he devoted himself to business with an energy and industry which never failed. He despised no labor, and was willing to undertake any honest means of increasing his subsistence. He bought and sold any thing, from groceries to old "junk." His chief profit, however, was in his wine and cider, which he bottled and sold readily. His business prospered, and he was regarded as a thriving man from the start.
In July, 1777, he married Mary Lum, a servant girl of great beauty, and something of a virago as well. The union was an unhappy one, as the husband and wife were utterly unsuited to each other. Seven years after her marriage, Mrs. Girard showed symptoms of insanity, which became so decided that her husband was compelled to place her in the State Asylum for the Insane. He appears to have done every thing in his power to restore her to reason. Being pronounced cured, she returned to her home, but in 1790 He was compelled to place her permanently in the Pennsylvania Hospital, where, nine months after, she gave birth to a female child, which happily died. Mrs. Girard never recovered her reason, but died in 1815, and was buried in the hospital grounds.
Girard fled from Philadelphia, with his wife, in September, 1777, at the approach of the British, and purchased a house at Mount Holly, near Burlington, New Jersey, where he carried on his bottling business. His claret commanded a ready sale among the British in Philadelphia, and his profits were large. In June, 1778, the city was evacuated by Lord Howe, and he was allowed to return to his former home.
Though he traded with the British, Girard considered himself a true patriot, as indeed he was. On the 27th of October, 1778, he took the oath of allegiance required by the State of Pennsylvania, and renewed it the year following. The war almost annihilated the commerce of the country, which was slow in recovering its former prosperity; but, in spite of this discouraging circumstance, Girard worked on steadily, scorning no employment, however humble, that would yield a profit. Already he had formed the plans which led to his immense wealth, and he was now patiently carrying out the most trying and disheartening preliminaries. Whatever he undertook prospered, and though his gains were small, they were carefully husbanded, and at the proper time invested in such a manner as to produce a still greater yield. Stephen Girard knew the value of little things, and he knew how to take advantage of the most trifling circumstance. His career teaches what may be done with these little things, and shows how even a few dollars, properly managed, may be made to produce as many thousands.
In 1780, Mr. Girard again entered upon the New Orleans and St. Domingo trade, in which he was engaged at the breaking out of the Revolution. He was very successful in his ventures, and was enabled in a year or two to greatly enlarge his operations. In 1782, he took a lease of ten years on a range of frame buildings in Water Street, one of which he occupied himself, with the privilege of a renewal for a similar period. Rents were very low at that time, as business was prostrated and people were despondent; but Girard, looking far beyond the present, saw a prosperous future. He was satisfied that it would require but a short time to restore to Philadelphia its old commercial importance, and he was satisfied that his leases would be the best investment he had ever made. The result proved the correctness of his views. His profits on these leases were enormous.
About this time he entered into partnership with his brother, Captain John Girard, in the West India trade. But the brothers could not conduct their affairs harmoniously, and in 1790 the firm was dissolved by mutual consent. Stephen Girard's share of the profits at the dissolution amounted to thirty thousand dollars. His wealth was greatly increased by a terrible tragedy which happened soon afterward.
At the outbreak of the great insurrection in St. Domingo, Girard had two vessels lying in one of the ports of that island. At the first signal of danger, a number of planters sent their valuables on board of these ships for safe-keeping, and went back to their estates for the purpose of securing more. They never returned, doubtless falling victims to the fury of the brutal negroes, and when the vessels were ready to sail there was no one to claim the property they contained. It was taken to Philadelphia, and was most liberally advertised by Mr. Girard, but as no owner ever appeared to demand it, it was sold, and the proceeds—about fifty thousand dollars—turned into the merchant's own coffers. This was a great assistance to him, and the next year he began the building of those splendid ships which enabled him to engage so actively in the Chinese and East India trades.
His course was now onward and upward to wealth. At first his ships merely sailed between Philadelphia and the port to which they were originally destined; but at length he was enabled to do more than this. Loading one of his ships with grain, he would send it to Bordeaux, where the proceeds of her cargo would be invested in wine and fruit. These she would take to St. Petersburg and exchange for hemp and iron, which were sold at Amsterdam for coin. From Amsterdam she would proceed to China and India, and, purchasing a cargo of silks and teas, sail for Philadelphia, where the final purchase was sold by the owner for cash or negotiable paper. His success was uniform, and was attributed by his brother merchants to luck.
Stephen Girard had no faith in luck. He never trusted any thing to chance. He
was a thorough navigator, and was perfect master of the knowledge required in
directing long voyages. He understood every department of his business so well
that he was always prepared to survey the field of commerce from a high
stand-point. He was familiar with the ports with which he dealt, and was always
able to obtain such information concerning them as he desired, in advance of his
competitors. He trusted nothing of importance to others. His instructions to the
commanders of his ships were always full and precise. These documents afford the
best evidence of the statements I have made concerning his system, as the
following will show:
Copy of Stephen Girard's Letter to Mr. ——, Commander and Supercargo of the ship ——, bound to Batavia.
Sir—I confirm my letters to you of the —— ult., and the —— inst. Having recently heard of the decease of Mr. ——, merchant at Batavia, also of the probable dissolution of his house, under the firm of Messrs. ——, I have judged it prudent to request my Liverpool correspondents to consign the ship ——, cargo, and specie on board, to Mr. ——, merchant at Batavia, subject to your control, and have requested said Liverpool friends to make a separate invoice and bill of lading for the specie, which they will ship on my account, on board of the ship ——, and similar documents for the merchandise, which they will ship in the same manner; therefore, I request that you will sign in conformity.
I am personally acquainted with Mr. ——, but not with Mr. ——, but I am on very friendly terms with some particular friends of the latter gentleman, and consequently I give him the preference. I am sorry to observe, however, that he is alone in a country where a partner appears to me indispensable to a commercial house, as well for the safety of his own capital as for the security of the interests of those who may confide to them property, and reside in distant parts of the globe.
The foregoing reflections, together with the detention of my ship V——, at Batavia, from June last, epoch of her arrival at that port, until the 15th of September, ——, when she had on board only nineteen hundred peculs of coffee, are the motives which have compelled me to request of my Liverpool friends to consign the specie and goods, which they will ship on my account, on board of the ship ——, under your command, to said Mr. ——, subject to your control.
Therefore, relying upon your activity, perseverance, correctness, zeal, and attention for my interest, I proceed in pointing out to you the plan of conduct which I wish you to pursue on your arrival at Batavia, and during your stay at that or any port of that island, until your departure for Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, to await my subsequent orders.
First. On your arrival at Batavia, you are to go on shore and ascertain Mr. ——'s residence, and, if you have reason to believe that he is still considered at that place as a man of good credit, and merits full confidence, you are to deliver to him my Liverpool consignees' letters to his address, and also the goods which you have on board, in such proportion as he may request, except the specie, which is to continue on board, as mentioned in the next article.
Second. The specie funds of the ship ——, which will consist of old Carolus dollars, you are to retain on board untouched, and in the said boxes or packages as they were in when shipped from Liverpool, well secured, and locked up in your powder magazine, in the after run of the said ship under the cabin floor.
The bulkhead and floor of said magazine, scuttle, iron bar, staples, etc., must be made sufficiently strong, if not already so, while you are at Liverpool, where you are to procure a strong padlock and key, for the purpose of securing said specie in the most complete and safest manner; and when you have the certainty that it is wanted to pay for the coffee purchased on account of the ship ——, then you are to receive the said coffee, and pay or deliver to your consignee Spanish dollars to the amount of said purchase, and no more, having due regard to the premium or advance allowed at Batavia on old Spanish dollars; and in that way you are to continue paying or delivering dollars as fast as you receive coffee, which is not to exceed the quantity which can be conveniently stowed on board said ship ——, observing to take a receipt for each payment, and to see that the net proceeds of the goods, which will have been shipped at Liverpool, must be invested in coffee, as far as the sales will permit, and shipped on board of said ship.
Should it happen that on your arrival at Batavia you should find that death, absence, etc., should deprive you of the services of Mr. ——, or that, owing to some causes before mentioned, it would be prudent to confide my interests elsewhere, in either case you are to apply to Messrs. ——, merchants of that place, to communicate your instructions relative to the disposal of the Liverpool cargo, on board of the ship ——, the loading of that ship with good merchantable coffee, giving the preference to the first quality whenever it can be purchased on reasonable terms for cash, or received in payment for the sales of the said Liverpool cargo, or for a part thereof, observing that I wished said coffee to be purchased at Samarang, or any other out-port, if practicable; and in all cases it must be attentively examined when delivered, and put up in double gunny bags.
If the purchase of said cargo is made at an out-port, the ship ——must proceed there to take it in.
On the subject of purchasing coffee at government sales, I have no doubt that it is an easy way to obtain a cargo, but I am of opinion that it is a very dear one, particularly as the fair purchaser, who has no other object in view but to invest his money, does not stay on the footing of competitors, who make their payments with Netherland bills of exchange, or wish to raise the prices of their coffee which they may have on hand for sale.
Under these impressions, I desire that all the purchases of coffee on my account be made from individuals, as far as practicable, and if the whole quantity necessary to load the ship can not be obtained at private sale, recourse must then be had to government sales.
In many instances I have experienced that whenever I had a vessel at Batavia, the prices of coffee at the government sales have risen from five to ten per cent., and sometimes higher.
On the subject of coffee I would remark that, owing to the increase of the culture of that bean, together with the immense imports of tea into the several ports of Europe, the price of that leaf has been lowered to such a degree as to induce the people of those countries, principally of the north, to use the latter article in preference to the first.
That circumstance has, for these past three years, created a gradual deduction from the consumption of coffee, which has augmented the stock on hand throughout every commercial city of the northern part of the globe, so as to present a future unfavorable prospect to the importers of that article. Indeed, I am convinced that, within a few months from this date, coffee will be ten per cent. cheaper in the United States than what it has been at Batavia for these two years past; nevertheless, being desirous to employ my ships as advantageously as circumstances will permit, and calculating also that the price at Java and other places of its growth will fall considerably, I have no objection to adventure.
Therefore, you must use every means in your power to facilitate the success of the voyage.
Should the invoice-cost of the entire cargo of coffee shipped at Java, on board of the ship ——, together with the disbursements of that ship (which must be conducted with the greatest economy), not amount to the specie funds and net proceeds of her Liverpool cargo, in that event you are to deliver the surplus to your consignee, who will give you a receipt for the same, with a duplicate, expressing that it is on my account, for the purpose of being invested on the most advantageous terms, in good dry coffee, to be kept at my order and disposal.
Then you will retain the original in your possession, and forward to me the duplicate by first good vessel to the United States, or via Europe, to care of my correspondents at Liverpool, London, Antwerp, or Amsterdam, the names of whom you are familiar with.
If you should judge it imprudent, however, to leave that money at Batavia, you are to bring it back in Spanish dollars, which you will retain on board for that purpose.
Although I wish you to make a short voyage, and with as quick dispatch at Java as practicable, yet I desire you not to leave that island unless your consignee has finally closed the sales of the Liverpool cargo, so that you may be the bearer of all the documents, and account-current, relative to the final transactions of the consignment of the ship —— and cargo. Duplicate and triplicate of said documents to be forwarded to me by your consignees, by the two first safe conveyances for the ports of the United States.
Being in the habit of dispatching my ships for Batavia from this port, Liverpool, or Amsterdam, as circumstances render it convenient, it is interesting to me to be from time to time informed of the several articles of produce and manufactures from each of those places which are the most in demand and quickest of sale at Java. Also of the quantity of each, size of package, and the probable price which they may sell for, cash, adding the Batavia duty, charges for selling, etc. Please to communicate this to your Batavia consignee.
The rates of commission I will allow for transacting the business relative to the ship and cargo at Java are two and a half per cent, for selling, and two and a half per cent, for purchasing and shipping coffee and other articles.
The consignees engaging to place on board of each prow one or two men of confidence, to see that the goods are safely delivered on board of the ship, to prevent pilfering, which is often practiced by those who conduct the lighter.
I am informed that the expenses for two men are trifling, comparatively, to the plunder which has been committed on board of the prows which deliver coffee on board of the ships.
No commissions whatever are to be allowed in the disbursements of my ships, whenever ship and cargo belong to me, and are consigned to some house.
While you remain at Batavia, I recommend you to stay on board of your ship, and not to go on shore except when the business of your ship and cargo may render it necessary.
Inclosed is an introductory letter to ——, which I request you to deliver, after you have made the necessary arrangements with Mr. ——for the consignment of the ship and cargo, or after the circumstance aforementioned has compelled you to look elsewhere for a consignee. Then you are to call upon said Messrs. ——, deliver them the aforesaid letter and the consignment of the ship —— and cargo, after having agreed with them in writing, which they will sign and deliver to you, that they engage to transact the business of the ship and cargo on the terms and conditions herein stated; and when that business is well understood and finally closed, you are to press them in a polite manner, so that they many give you a quick dispatch, without giving too great a price for the coffee, particularly at this present moment, when its price is declining throughout those countries where it is consumed.
Indeed, on the subject of purchasing coffee for the ship ——, the greatest caution and prudence should be exercised. Therefore, I request that you will follow the plan of conduct laid down for you throughout. Also, to keep to yourself the intention of the voyage, and the amount of specie you have on board; and in view to satisfy the curious, tell them that it is probable that the ship will take in molasses, rice, and sugar, if the price of that produce is very low, adding that the whole will depend on the success in selling the small Liverpool cargo. The consignees of said cargo should follow the same line of conduct, and if properly attended to by yourself and them, I am convinced that the cargo of coffee can be purchased ten per cent. cheaper than it would be if it is publicly known there is a quantity of Spanish dollars on board, besides a valuable cargo of British goods intended to be invested in coffee for Stephen Girard, of Philadelphia.
During my long commercial experience, I have noticed that no advantage results from telling one's business to others, except to create jealousy or competitors when we are fortunate, and to gratify our enemies when otherwise.
If my remarks are correct, I have no doubt they will show you the necessity of being silent, and to attend with activity, perseverance, and modesty, to the interests of your employer.
As my letters of instruction embrace several interesting objects, I request you to peruse them in rotation, when at sea in fine climates, during your voyage to Batavia, and to take correct extracts, so as to render yourself master of the most essential parts. I conclude by directing your attention to your health and that of your crew.
I am yours, respectfully,
Mr. Girard was not only rigidly precise in his instructions, but he permitted no departure from them. He regarded it as dangerous to allow discretion to any one in the execution of his plans. Where a deviation from his instructions might cause success in one case, it would cause loss in ninety-nine others. It was understood among all his employés that a rigid obedience to orders, in even the most trifling particulars, was expected, and would be exacted. If loss came under such circumstances, the merchant assumed the entire responsibility for it.
Upon one occasion one of his best captains was instructed to purchase his cargo of teas at a certain port. Upon reaching home he was summoned by the merchant to his presence.
"Captain ——," said Mr. Girard, sternly, "your instructions required you to purchase your cargo at ——."
"That is true, Mr. Girard," replied the Captain, "but upon reaching that port I found I could do so much better at ——, that I felt justified in proceeding to the latter place."
"You should have obeyed your orders, sir," was the stern retort.
"I was influenced by a desire to serve your interests, sir. The result ought to justify me in my act, since it puts many thousands more into your pocket than if I had bought where I was instructed."
"Captain ——," said Girard, "I take care of my own interests. You should have obeyed your orders if you had broken me. Nothing can excuse your disobedience. You will hand in your accounts, sir, and consider yourself discharged from my service."
He was as good as his word, and, though the captain's disobedience had vastly increased the profit of the voyage, he dismissed him, nor would he ever receive him into his service again.
To his knowledge of his business Mr. Girard joined an unusual capacity for such ventures. He was, it must be said, hard and illiberal in his bargains, and remorseless in exacting the last cent due him. He was prompt and faithful in the execution of every contract, never departed in the slightest from his plighted word, and never engaged in any venture which he was not perfectly able to undertake. He was prudent and cautious in the fullest sense of those terms, but his ventures were always made with a boldness which was the sure forerunner of success.
His fidelity to his word is well shown by a circumstance which had occurred long after he was one of the "money kings" of the land. He was once engaged with his cashier in a discussion as to the length of time a man would consume in counting a million of dollars, telling out each dollar separately. The dispute became animated, and the cashier declared that he could make a million of dots with ink in a few hours.
"I'll tell you what I'll do," said Girard, who was thoroughly vexed by the opposition of the other, "I'll wager five hundred dollars that I can ride in my gig from here to my farm, spend two hours there, and return before you can make your million of dots with ink."
The cashier, after a moment's reflection, accepted the wager, and Mr. Girard departed to his farm. He returned in a few hours, confident that he had won. The cashier met him with a smile.
"Where is my money?" asked Girard, triumphantly.
"The money is mine," replied the cashier. "Come and see."
He led the merchant to an unused room of the bank, and there, to his dismay, Girard saw the walls and ceiling covered with spots of ink, which the cashier had dashed on them with a brush.
"Do you mean to say there are a million of dots here?" he cried, angrily.
"Count them, and see," replied his subordinate, laughing. "You know the wager was a million of dots with ink."
"But I expected you would make them with the pen."
"I did not undertake any thing of the kind."
The joke was too good, and the merchant not only paid the amount of the wager, but the cost of cleaning the walls.
In 1810 the question of renewing the charter of the old Bank of the United States was actively discussed. Girard was a warm friend of that institution, which he believed had been the cause of a very great part of the prosperity of the country, and was firmly convinced that Congress would renew the charter. In this belief he ordered the Barings, of London, to invest all his funds in their hands in shares of the Bank of the United States, which was done, during the following year, to the amount of half a million of dollars. When the charter expired, he was the principal creditor of that institution, which Congress refused to renew. Discovering that he could purchase the old Bank and the cashier's house for one hundred and twenty thousand dollars, he at once secured them, and on the 12th of May, 1812, opened the Girard Bank, with a capital of one million two hundred thousand dollars, which he increased the next year by one hundred thousand dollars more. He retained all the old officers of the Bank of the United States, especially the cashier, Mr. Simpson, to whose skill and experience he was greatly indebted for his subsequent success.
Finding that the salaries which had been paid by the Government were higher than those paid elsewhere, he cut them down to the rate given by the other banks. The watchman had always received from the old Bank the gift of an overcoat at Christmas, but Girard put a stop to this. He gave no gratuities to any of his employés, but confined them to the compensation for which they had bargained; yet he contrived to get out of them service more devoted than was received by other men who paid higher wages and made presents. Appeals to him for aid were unanswered. No poor man ever came full-handed from his presence. He turned a deaf ear to the entreaties of failing merchants to help them on their feet again. He was neither generous nor charitable. When his faithful cashier died, after long years spent in his service, he manifested the most hardened indifference to the bereavement of the family of that gentleman, and left them to struggle along as best they could.
Yet from the first he was liberal and sometimes magnificent in the management of his bank. He would discount none but good paper, but it was his policy to grant accommodations to small traders, and thus encourage beginners, usually giving the preference to small notes, by this system doing very much to avert the evils that would of necessity have sprung from the suspension of the old Bank of the United States. The Government credit was almost destroyed, and money was needed to carry on the war. He made repeated advances to the treasury, unsolicited by the authorities, and on more than one occasion kept the Government supplied with the sinews of war. In 1814, when our prospects, both military and financial, were at their lowest ebb, when the British forces had burned Washington and the New England States were threatening to withdraw from the Union, the Government asked for a loan of five millions of dollars, with the most liberal inducements to subscribers. Only twenty thousand dollars could be obtained, and the project seemed doomed to failure, when it was announced that Stephen Girard had subscribed for the whole amount. This announcement at once restored the public confidence, and Mr. Girard was beset with requests from persons anxious to take a part of the loan, even at an advanced rate. They were allowed to do so upon the original terms. When the Government could not, for want of funds, pay the interest on its debt to him, he wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury:
"I am of opinion that those who have any claim for interest on public stock, etc., should patiently wait for a more favorable moment, or at least receive in payment treasury notes. Should you be under the necessity of resorting to either of these plans, as one of the public creditors, I shall not murmur."
"A circumstance soon occurred, however, which was a source of no little discomfiture to the financial arrangements of his individual institution. This fact was the suspension of specie payments by the State banks, resulting from the non-intercourse act, the suspension of the old bank, and the combined causes tending to produce a derangement of the currency of the country. It was then a matter of great doubt with him how he should preserve the integrity of his own institution, while the other banks were suspending their payments; but the credit of his own bank was effectually secured by the suggestion of his cashier, Mr. Simpson, who advised the recalling of his own notes by redeeming them with specie, and by paying out the notes of the State banks. In this mode not a single note of his own was suffered to be depreciated, and he was thus enabled, in 1817, to contribute effectually to the restoration of specie payments."
He was instrumental in securing the establishment of the new Bank of the United States, and was its largest stockholder and one of its directors. He even offered to unite his own institution with it upon certain liberal conditions, which were refused. Yet he was always a firm friend to it.
"One of the characteristics of Mr. Girard was his public spirit. At one time he freely subscribed one hundred and ten thousand dollars for the navigation of the Schuylkill; at another time he loaned the company two hundred and sixty-five thousand eight hundred and fifty dollars. When the credit of the State of Pennsylvania was prostrated by what was believed to have been an injudicious system of internal improvement, and it was found expedient for the Governor to resort to its metropolis in order to replenish its coffers, he made a voluntary loan to Governor Shultz of one hundred thousand dollars. So far was his disposition to promote the fiscal prosperity of the country manifested, that, as late as 1831, when the country was placed in extreme embarrassment from the scarcity of money, he perceived the cause in the fact that the balance of trade was against us to a considerable extent, and he accordingly drew upon the house of Baring Brothers & Co. for bills of exchange to the amount of twelve thousand pounds sterling, which he disposed of to the Bank of the United States at an advance of ten per cent., which draft was followed up by another for ten thousand, which was disposed of in like manner to other institutions. This act tended to reduce the value of bills, and the rate of exchange suddenly fell. The same spirit which he manifested toward the national currency he exhibited to the corporation of Philadelphia, by erecting new blocks of buildings, and beautifying and adorning its streets; less, apparently, from a desire of profit than from a wish to improve the place which was his adopted home, and where he had reaped his fortunes. His subscription of two hundred thousand dollars to the Danville and Pottsville Railroad, in 1831, was an action in keeping with the whole tenor of his life; and his subscription of ten thousand dollars toward the erection of an exchange looked to the same result."
The war of 1812, which brought financial ruin to so many others, simply increased Girard's wealth. He never lost a ship, and as war prices prevailed, his profits were in accordance with them. One of his ships was taken by a British cruiser at the mouth of the Delaware, in the spring of 1813. Fearing that his prize would be recaptured by an American ship of war if he attempted to send her into port, the English admiral dispatched a flag of truce to Mr. Girard, and proposed to him to ransom the vessel for one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in coin. Girard consented, paid the money, and the ship was allowed to come up to the city. Her cargo consisted of silks, nankeens, and teas, and afforded her owner a profit of half a million of dollars.
Yet in the midst of all his wealth, which in 1828 was estimated at ten millions of dollars, he was a solitary old man.
He lived in a dingy little house in Water Street. His wife had died in an insane asylum, and he was childless. He was repulsive in person. He was feared by his subordinates—by all who had dealings with him—and liked by none. He was mean and close in his personal habits, living on less, perhaps, than any of his clerks, and deriving little or no benefit from his vast wealth, so far as his individual comfort was concerned. He gave nothing in charity. Lazarus would have lain at his doors a life-time without being noticed by him. He was solitary, soured, cold, with a heart of stone, and fully conscious of his personal unpopularity. Yet he valued wealth—valued it for the power it gave him over men. Under that cold, hardened exterior reigned an ambition as profound as that which moved Napoleon. He was ambitious of regulating the financial operations of the land, and proud of his power in this respect, and it should be remembered in his favor that he did not abuse that power after it had passed into his hands.
He had no vices, no dissipations; his whole soul was in his business. He was conscious that his only hope of distinction above his fellow-men was in his wealth, and he was resolved that nothing should make him swerve from his endeavor to accumulate a fortune which should make him all powerful in life and remembered in death. He sought no friends, and was reticent as to his career, saying to those who questioned him about it, "Wait till I am dead; my deeds will show what I was."
Religion had no place in his heart. He was an avowed unbeliever, making a boast of his disbelief. He always worked on Sunday, in order that he might show his disapproval of the observance of it as a day of rest. Rest, he said, made a man rusty, and attendance upon the worship of God he denounced as worse than folly. His favorite books were the works of Voltaire, and he named his best ships after the most celebrated French infidels.
Yet this man, so unloved, so undeserving of love, is said to have once had a warm heart. His early troubles and his domestic griefs are said to have soured and estranged him from mankind.
"No one who has had access to his private papers can fail to be impressed with the belief that these early disappointments furnish the key to his entire character. Originally of warm and generous impulses, the belief in childhood that he had not been given his share of the love and kindness which were extended to others, changed the natural current of his feelings, and, acting on a warm and passionate temperament, alienated him from his home, his parents, and his friends. And when in after time there were superadded years of bitter anguish, resulting from his unfortunate and ill-adapted marriage, rendered even more poignant by the necessity of concealment, and the consequent injustice of public sentiment, marring all his cherished expectations, it may be readily understood why constant occupation became a necessity and labor a pleasure."
This is the testimony of Mr. Henry W. Arey, the distinguished secretary of Girard College, in whose keeping are the papers of the subject of this memoir, and it must be confessed that his view of Girard's character is sustained by the following incidents, the narration of which I have passed over until now, in order that the history of his commercial career might not be interrupted:
In the summer of 1793 the yellow fever broke out with fearful violence in Philadelphia. The citizens fled in dismay, leaving the plague-smitten city to its fate. Houses were left tenantless, and the streets were deserted. It was a season of horror and dread. Those who could not get away avoided each other, and the sufferers were left to languish and die. Money could not buy nurses in sufficient numbers, and often the victims lay unburied for days in the places where they had died. So terrible was the panic that it seemed that nothing could stay it.
On the 10th of September the Federal Gazette, the only paper which had not suspended its publication, contained an anonymous card, stating that of the visitors of the poor all but three had succumbed to the disease or fled from the city, and begging assistance from such benevolent citizens as would consent to render their aid. On the 12th and 14th, meetings were held at the City Hall, at the last of which a volunteer committee was appointed to superintend the measures to be taken for checking the pestilence. Twenty-seven men volunteered to serve, but only twelve had the courage to fulfill their promise. They set to work promptly. The hospital at Bush Hill was reported by the physician to be in a deplorable state—without order, dirty and foul, and in need of nurses. The last, he stated, could not be had for any price. Two of the committee now stepped forward and nobly offered themselves as managers of the hospital. They were Stephen Girard and Peter Helm.
Girard was now a man of wealth and influence, and with a brilliant commercial career opening before him. Above all, he was a foreigner, and unpopular in the city. Yet he did not hesitate to take the post from which others shrank. He and Helm were regarded as doomed men, but they did not falter from their self-imposed task. They went to work at once. Girard chose the post of honor, which was the post of danger—the management of the interior of the hospital. His decisive character was at once felt. Order began to appear, medicines and nurses were procured, and the very next day the committee were informed that the hospital had been cleaned and reorganized, and was prepared to receive patients.
Girard opened his purse liberally, and spared no expense where money would avail. But this was not all. Besides personally superintending the interior of the hospital, he went about through the city seeking the sick and conveying them to the hospital.
"In the great scarcity of help, he used frequently to receive the sick and dying at the gate, assist in carrying them to their beds, nurse them, receive their last messages, watch for their last breath, and then, wrapping them in the sheet on which they had died, carry them out to the burial ground and place them in the trench. He had a vivid recollection of the difficulty of finding any kind of fabric in which to wrap the dead, when the vast number of interments had exhausted the supply of sheets. 'I would put them,' he would say, 'in any old rag I could find.'"
"If he ever left the hospital, it was to visit the infected districts, and assist in removing the sick from the houses in which they were dying without help. One scene of this kind, witnessed by a merchant who was hurrying past with camphored handkerchief pressed to his mouth, affords us a vivid glimpse of this heroic man engaged in his sublime vocation. A carriage, rapidly driven by a black man, broke the silence of the deserted and grass-grown street. It stopped before a frame house, and the driver, first having bound a handkerchief over his mouth, opened the door of the carriage, and quickly remounted to the box. A short, thick-set man stepped from the coach and entered the house. In a minute or two the observer, who stood at a safe distance watching the proceedings, heard a shuffling noise in the entry, and soon saw the stout little man supporting with extreme difficulty a tall, gaunt, yellow-visaged victim of the pestilence. Girard held round the waist the sick man, whose yellow face rested against his own; his long, damp, tangled hair mingled with Girard's; his feet dragging helpless upon the pavement. Thus he drew him to the carriage door, the driver averting his face from the spectacle, far from offering to assist. Partly dragging, partly lifting, Girard succeeded, after long and severe exertion, in getting him into the vehicle. He then entered it himself, closed the door, and the carriage drove away toward the hospital." [A]
For sixty days Mr. Girard continued to discharge his duties, never absenting himself from his post, being nobly sustained by Peter Helm.
Again, in 1797 and 1798, when the city was scourged a second and a third time with the fever, he volunteered his services, and more than earned the gratitude of his fellow-citizens. In the absence of physicians, he took upon himself the office of prescribing for the sick, and as his treatment involved careful nursing and the use of simple remedies only, he was very successful. In 1799 he wrote to his friend Devize, then in France, but who had been the physician at the Bush Hill Hospital in 1793:
"During all this frightful time I have constantly remained in the city, and, without neglecting any public duties, I have played a part which will make you smile. Would you believe it, my friend, that I have visited as many as fifteen sick people in a day, and what will surprise you still more, I have lost only one patient, an Irishman, who would drink a little. I do not flatter myself that I have cured one single person, but you will think with me that in my quality of Philadelphia physician I have been very moderate, and that not one of my confreres have killed fewer than myself."
Such acts as these should go far in his favor in estimating his character, for they are the very height of true heroism.
Mr. Girard was never idle. Work, as has before been said, was a necessity with him. Nothing would draw him from his labors. His only recreation was to drive to his little farm, which lay a few miles out of the city, and engage with his own hands in the work of tilling it. He was very proud of the vegetables and fruits he raised himself, and took great interest in improving their growth. During the visit of the present head of the house of Baring Bros, (then a young man) to this country, that gentleman supposed he would give Mr. Girard pleasure by informing him of the safe arrival of one of his ships, the Voltaire, from India. Engaging a carriage, he drove to the banker's farm, and inquired for Mr. Girard.
"He is in the hay-loft," was the answer.
"Inform him that I wish to see him," said Mr. Baring; but almost before the words had left his lips Girard was before him.
"I came to inform you," he said, addressing the banker, "that your ship, the Voltaire, has arrived safely."
"I knew that she would reach port safely," said Girard; "my ships always arrive safe. She is a good ship. Mr. Baring, you must excuse me; I am much engaged in my hay." And so saying, he ascended to the loft again.
To the last he was active. In 1830, having reached the age of eighty, he began to lose the sight of his eye; yet he would have no assistance. In attempting to cross a crowded street, he was knocked down by a passing wagon and injured severely. His ear was cut off, his face bruised, and his sight entirely destroyed. His health now declined rapidly, and on the 26th of December, 1831, he died, in the back room of his plain little house in Water Street.
His immense wealth was carefully divided by his will. He gave to his surviving brother and eleven of his nieces sums ranging from five to twenty thousand dollars, and to his remaining niece, who was the mother of a very large family, he gave sixty thousand dollars. He gave to each of the captains then in his employ who had made two voyages in his service, and who should bring his ship safely into port, fifteen hundred dollars. To each of his apprentices he gave five hundred dollars. To his old servants he gave annuities, ranging from three to five hundred dollars each.
He gave thirty thousand dollars to the Pennsylvania Hospital, in which his wife had been cared for; twenty thousand to the Deaf and Dumb Asylum; ten thousand to the Orphan Asylum; ten thousand to the Lancaster schools; ten thousand for the purpose of providing the poor in Philadelphia with free fuel; ten thousand to the Society for the Relief of Distressed Sea-Captains and their Families; twenty thousand to the Masonic Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, for the relief of poor members; six thousand for the establishment of a free school in Passyunk, near Philadelphia; five hundred thousand dollars to the Corporation of Philadelphia for certain improvements in the city; three hundred thousand to the State of Pennsylvania for her canals; and a portion of his valuable estates in Louisiana to the Corporation of New Orleans, for the improvement of that city.
The remainder of his property, worth then about six millions of dollars, he left to trustees for the erection and endowment of the noble College for Orphans, in Philadelphia, which bears his name.
Thus it will be seen that this man, who seemed steeled to resist appeals for private charity in life, in death devoted all the results of his unusual genius in his calling to the noblest of purposes, and to enterprises of the most benignant character, which will gratefully hand his name down to the remotest ages of posterity.