HISTORY OF THE GREAT AMERICAN FORTUNES

CHAPTER VI

GIRARD—THE RICHEST OF THE SHIPPERS



Girard was born at Bordeaux, France, on May 21, 1750, and was the eldest of five children of Captain Pierre Girard, a mariner.  When eight years old he became blind in one eye, a loss and deformity which subjected his sensibilities to severe trials and which had the effect of rendering him morose and sour.  It was his lament in later life that while his brothers had been sent to college, he was the ugly duckling of the family and came in for his father’s neglect and a shrewish step-mother’s waspishness.  At about fourteen years of age he relieved himself of these home troubles and ran away to sea.  During the nine years that he sailed between Bordeaux and the West Indies, he rose from cabin-boy to mate.  Evading the French law 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, Girard got the command of a trading vessel when about twenty-two years old.  While in this service he clandestinely carried cargoes of his own which he sold at considerable profit.  In May, 1776, while en route from New Orleans to a Canadian port, he became enshrouded in a fog off the Delaware Capes, signaled for aid, and when the fog had cleared away sufficiently for an American ship, near by, to come to his assistance, learned that war was on.  He thereupon scurried for Philadelphia, where he sold vessel and cargo, of which latter only a part belonged to him, and with the proceeds opened up a cider and wine bottling and grocery business in a small store on Water street.

Girard made money fast ;  and in July, 1777, married Mary Lum, a woman of his own class.  She is usually described as a servant girl of great beauty and as one whose temper was of quite tempestuous violence.  This unfortunate woman subsequently lost her reason ;  undoubtedly her husband’s meannesses and his forbidding qualities contributed to the process.  One of his most favorable biographers thus describes him :  “ In person he was short and stout, with a dull repulsive countenance, which his bushy eyebrows and solitary eye almost made hideous.  He was cold and reserved in manner, and was disliked by his neighbors, the most of whom were afraid of him.”1

During the British occupation of Philadelphia he was charged by the revolutionists with extreme doubledealing and duplicity in pretending to be a patriot, and taking the oath of allegiance to the colonies, while secretly trading with the British.  None of his biographers deny this.  While merchant after merchant was being bankrupted from disruption of trade, Girard was incessantly making money.  By 1780 he was again in the shipping trade, his vessels plying between American ports and New Orleans and San Domingo ; not the least of his profits, it was said, came from slavetrading.


HOW HE BUILT HIS SHIPS.


A troublous partnership with his brother, Captain Jean Girard, lasted but a short time ;  the brothers could not agree.  At the dissolution in 1790 Stephen Girard’s share of the profits amounted to $30,000.  Girard’s greatest stroke came from the insurrection of the San Domingo negroes against the French several years later.  He had two vessels lying in the harbor of one of the island ports.  At the first mutterings of danger, a number of planters took their valuables on board one of these ships and scurried back to get the remainder.  The sequel, as commonly narrated, is represented thus :  The planters failed to return, evidently falling victims to the fury of the insurrectionists.  The vessels were taken to Philadelphia, and Girard persistently advertised for the owners of the valuables.  As no owners ever appeared, Girard sold the goods and put the proceeds, $50,000, into his own bank account.  “This,” says Houghton, “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 West India trades.”

From this time on his profits were colossal.  His ships circumnavigated the world many times and each voyage brought him a fortune.  He practiced all of those arts of deception which were current among the trading class and which were accepted as shrewdness and were inseparably associated with legitimate business methods.  In giving one of his captains instructions he wrote, as was his invariable policy, the most explicit directions to exercise secretiveness and cunning in his purchases of coffee at Batavia.  Be cautious and prudent, was his admonition.  Keep to yourself the intention of the voyage and the amount of specie that you have on board.  To satisfy the curious, throw them off the scent by telling them that the ship will take in molasses, rice and sugar, if the price is very low, adding that the whole will depend upon the success in selling the small Liverpool cargo.  If you do this, the cargo of coffee can be bought 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.

By 1810 we see him ordering the Barings of London to invest in shares of the Bank of the United States half a million dollars which they held for him.  When the charter expired, he was the principal creditor of that bank ;  and he bought, at a great bargain, the bank and the cashier’s house for $120,000.  On May 12, 1812, he opened the Girard Bank, with a capital of $1,200,000, which he increased the following year by $100,000 more.2


A DICTATOR OF FINANCE.


His wealth was now overshadowingly great ;  his power immense.  He was a veritable dictator of the realms of finance ;  an assiduous, repellent little man, with his devil’s eye, who rode roughshod over every obstacle in his path.  His every movement bred fear ;  his veriest word could bring ruin to any one who dared cross his purposes.  The war of 1812 brought disaster to many a merchant, but Girard harvested fortune from the depths of misfortune.  “ He was, it must be said,” says Houghton, “hard and illiberal in his bargains, and remorseless in exacting the last cent due him.”  And after he opened the Girard Bank :  “ 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 employees, 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.”

Further, Houghton unconsciously proceeds to bring out several incidents which show the exorbitant profits Girard made from his various business activities.  In the spring of 1813, one of his ships was captured by a British cruiser at the mouth of the Delaware.  Fearing that his prize would be recaptured by an American war ship if he sent her into port, the English Admiral notified Girard that he would ransom the ship for $180,000 in coin.  Girard paid the money ;  and, even after paying that sum, the cargo of silks, nankeens and teas yielded him a profit of half a million dollars.  His very acts of apparent public spirit were means by which he scooped in large profits.  Several times, when the rate of exchange was so high as to be injurious to general business, he drew upon Baring Bros. for sums of money to be transferred to the United States.  This was hailed as a public benefaction.  But what did Girard do ?  He disposed of the money to the Bank of the United States and charged ten per cent. for the service.


BRIBERY AND INTIMIDATION.


The reestablishment and enlarged sway of this bank were greatly due to his efforts and influence ;  he became its largest stockholder and one of its directors.  No business institution in the first three decades of the nineteenth century exercised such a sinister and overshadowing influence as this chartered monopoly.  The full tale of its indirect bribery of politicians and newspaper editors, in order to perpetuate its great privileges and keep a hold upon public opinion, has never been set forth.  But sufficient facts were brought out when, after years of partizan agitation, Congress was forced to investigate and found that not a few of its own members for years had been on the payrolls of the bank.3

In order to get its charter renewed from time to time and retain its extraordinary special privileges, the United States Bank systematically debauched politics and such of the press as was venal ;  and when a critical time came, as it did in 1832-34, when the mass of the people sided with President Jackson in his aim to overthrow the bank, it instructed the whole press at its command to raise the cry of “ the fearful consequences of revolution, anarchy and despotism,” which assuredly would ensue if Jackson were reelected.  To give one instance of how for years it had manipulated the press :  The “Courier and Enquirer” was a powerful New York newspaper.  Its owners, Webb and Noah, suddenly deserted Jackson and began to denounce him.  The reason was, as revealed by a Congressional investigation, that they had borrowed $50,000 from the United States Bank which lost no time in giving them the alternative of paying up or supporting the bank.4

Girard’s share in the United States Bank brought him millions of dollars.  With its control of deposits of government funds and by the provisions of its charter, this bank swayed the whole money marts of the United States and could manipulate them at will.  It could advance or depress prices as it chose.  Many times, Girard with his fellow directors was severely denounced for the arbitrary power he wielded.  But — and let the fact be noted — the denunciation came largely from the owners of the State banks who sought to supplant the United States Bank.  The struggle was really one between two sets of capitalistic interests.

Shipping and banking were the chief sources of Girard’s wealth, with side investments in real estate and other forms of property.  He owned large tracts of land in Philadelphia, the value of which inncreased rapidly with the growth of population ;  he was a heavy stockholder in river navigation companies and near the end of his life he subscribed $200,000 toward the construction of the Danville & Pottsville Railroad.


THE SOLITARY CROESUS.


He was at this time a solitary, crusty old man living in a four-story house on Water street, pursued by the contumely of every one, even of those who flattered him for mercenary purposes.  Children he had none, and his wife was long since dead.  His great wealth brought him no comfort ;  the environment with which he surrounded himself was mean and sordid ;  many of his clerks lived in better style.  There, in his dingy habitation, this lone, weazened veteran of commerce immersed himself in the works of Voltaire, Diderot, Paine and Rousseau, of whom he was a profound admirer and after whom some of his best ships were named.

This grim miser had, after all, the one great redeeming quality of being true to himself.  He made no pretense to religion and had an abhorrence of hypocrisy.  Cant was not in his nature.  Out into the world he went, a ferocious shark, cold-eyed for prey, but he never cloaked his motives beneath a calculating exterior of piety or benevolence.  Thousands upon thousands he had deceived, for business was business, but himself he never deceived.  His bitter scoffs at what he termed theologic absurdities and superstitions and his terrific rebuffs to ministers who appealed to him for money, undoubtedly called forth a considerable share of the odium which was hurled upon him.  He defied the anathemas of organized churchdom ;  he took hold of the commercial world and shook it harshly and emerged laden with spoils.  To the last, his volcanic spirit flashed forth, even when, eighty years old, he lay with an ear cut off, his face bruised and his sight entirely destroyed, the result of being felled by a wagon.

In all his eighty-one years charity had no place in his heart.  But after, on Dec, 26, 1831, he lay stone dead and his will was opened, what a surprise there was !  His relatives all received bequests ;  his very apprentices each got five hundred dollars, and his old servants annuities.  Hospitals, orphan societies and other charitable associations all benefited.  Five hundred thousand dollars went to the City of Philadelphia for certain civic improvements ;  three hundred thousand dollars for the canals of Pennsylvania ;  a portion of his valuable estate in Louisiana to New Orleans for the improvement of that city.  The remainder of the estate, about six millions, was left to trustees for the creation and endowment of a College for Orphans, which was promptly named after him.

A chorus of astonishment and laudation went up.  Was there ever such magnificence of public spirit ?  Did ever so lofty a soul live who was so misunderstood ?  Here and there a protesting voice was feebly heard that Girard’s wealth came from the community and that it was only justice that it should revert to the community ;  that his methods had resulted in widows and orphans and that his money should be applied to the support of those orphans.  These protests were frowned upon as the mouthings of cranks or the ravings of impotent envy.  Applause was lavished upon Girard ;  his very clothes were preserved as immemorial mementoes.5


“ THE GREAT BENEFACTOR.”


All of the benefactions of the other rich men of the period waned into insignificance compared to those of Girard.  His competitors and compeers had given to charity, but none on so great a scale as Girard.  Distinguished orators vied with one another in extolling his wonderful benefactions,6 and the press showered encomiums upon him as that of the greatest benefactor of the age.  To them this honestly seemed so, for they were trained by the standards of the trading class, by the sophistries of political economists and by the spirit of the age, to concentrate their attention upon the powerful and successful only, while disregarding the condition of the masses of the people.

The pastimes of a king or the foibles of some noted politician or rich man were things of magnitude and were much expatiated upon, while the common man, singly or in mass, was of absolutely no importance.  The finely turned rhetoric of the orators, pleasing as it was to that generation, is, judged by modern standards, well nigh meaningless and worthless.  In that highflown oratory, with its carefully studied exordiums, periods and perorations can be clearly discerned the reverence given to power as embodied by possession of property.  But nowhere do we see any explanation, or even an attempt at explanation, of the basic means by which this property was acquired or of its effect upon the masses of the people.  Woefully lacking in facts are the productions of the time as to how the great body of the workers lived and what they did.  Facts as to the rich are fairly available, although not abundant, but facts regarding the rest of the population are pitifully few.  The patient seeker for truth — the mind which is not content with the presentation of one side — finds, with some impatience, that only a few writers thought it worth while to give even scant attention to the condition of the working class.  One of these few was Matthew Carey, an orthodox political economist, who, in a pamphlet issued in 1829,7 gave this picture which forms both a contrast and a sequel to the accumulations of multimillionaires, of which Girard was then the archtype :


A STARK CONTRAST PRESENTED.


“ Thousands of our laboring people travel hundreds of miles in quest of employment on canals at 62½ cents to 87½ cents per day, paying $1.50 to $2.00 a week for board, leaving families behind depending upon them for support.  They labor frequently in marshy grounds, where they inhale pestiferous miasmata, which destroy their health, often irrevocably.  They return to their poor families broken hearted, and with ruined constitutions, with a sorry pittance, most laboriously earned, and take to their beds, sick and unable to work.  Hundreds are swept off annually, many of them leaving numerous and helpless families.  Notwithstanding their wretched fate, their places are quickly supplied by others, although death stares them in the face.  Hundreds are most laboriously employed on turn-pikes, working from morning to night at from half a dollar to three-quarters a day, exposed to the broiling sun in summer and all the inclemency of our severe winters.  There is always a redundancy of wood-pilers in our cities, whose wages are so low that their utmost efforts do not enable them to earn more than from thirty-five to fifty cents per day. ... Finally there is no employment whatever, how disagreeable or loathsome, or deleterious soever it may be, or however reduced the wages, that does not find persons willing to follow it rather than beg or steal.”



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1 “ Kings of Fortune ” : 16 — The pretentious title and sub-title of this work, written thirty odd years ago by Walter R. Houghton, A.M., gives an idea of the fantastic exaltation indulged in of the careers of men of great wealth.  Hearken to the full title :  “Kings of Fortune—or the Triumphs and Achievements of Noble, Self-made men.— Whose brilliant careers have honored their calling, blessed humanity, and whose lives furnish instruction for the young, entertainment for the old and valuable lessons for the aspirants of fortune.”  Could any fulsome effusion possibly surpass this ?

2 “ Mr.  Girard’s bank was a financial success from the beginning.  A few months after it opened for business its capital was increased to one million three hundred thousand dollars.  One of the incidents which helped, at the outstart, to inspire the public with confidence in the stability of the new institution was the fact that the trustees who liquidated the affairs of the old Bank of the United States opened an account in Girard’s Bank, and deposited in its vaults some millions of dollars in specie belonging to the old bank.”—“The History of the Girard National Bank of Philadelphia,” by Josiah Granville Leach, LL.B., 1902.  This eulogistic work contains only the scantiest details of Girard’s career.

3 The First Session of the Twenty-second Congress, 1831, iv, containing reports from Nos. 460 to 463.

4 Ibid.
      An investigating committee appointed by the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1840, reported that during a series of years the Bank of the United States (or United States Bank, as it was more often referred to) had corruptly expended $130,000 in Pennsylvania for a re-charter.— Pa. House Journal, 1842, Vol. II, Appendix, 172-531.

5 In providing for the establishment of Girard College, Girard stated in his will :  “ I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatsoever in the said college ;  nor shall any such person be admitted for any purpose, or as a visitor within the premises appropriated to the purposes of said college.”—The Will of the Late Stephen Girard, Esq., 1848: 22-23.
      An attempt was made by his relatives in France to break his will, one of the grounds being that the provisions of his will were in conflict with the Christiar religion which was a part of the common law of Pennsylvania.  The attempt failed.

Extracts from Stephen Girard's will

To the Pennsylvania hospital, subject to the payment of an annuity of $200 to a female slave, whom he sets free $30,000
To the asylum for the deaf and dumb ............. 20,000
To the orphans' asylum .......................... 10,000
To the controllers of the public schools ........ 10,000
To the city corporation, to be invested, and the interest to be applied, annually, in the purchase of wood for the poor ........................... 10,000
To the society of ship masters ................... 10,000
To the free masons' lodge ........................ 20,000
For a school to be erected in the township of Passayunk, for poor white children ............ 6,000
Sundry legacies to individuals amounting to ...... 120,000
Several annuities amounting to about ............... 4,000
To the city of New Orleans 1,000 acres of improved land in the territory of Mississippi, and one-third of 207,000 acres of unimproved land in the same territory,
To the city of Philadelphia the remaining two-thirds of the said unimproved lands.
To the city of Philadelphia, stock in the Schuylkill navigation company ........ 110,000
For a college for poor white male children and its proper endowments, the sum of .... 2,000,000
To the city of Philadelphia, for certain city improvements, to be invested, and the interest to be annually applied ......... 500,000
All his remaining estate, real and personal (no part of the real estate to be sold) is to be applied as follows:--- in further aid of the said college, improvements of the city, and in the relief of the taxes.
To the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to be applied to internal improvements by canals, provided the legislature shall, within one year from Stephen Girard's decease, pass laws authorising the city of Philadelphia to make the intended improvements, otherwise to the United States for the same object ................ 300,000
There are, however, some restrictions, which I consider it my duty to prescribe, and to be, amongst others, conditions on which my bequest for said college is made and to be enjoyed, namely:  first, I enjoin and require, that, if at the close of any year, the income of the fund devoted to the purposes of the said college shall be more than sufficient for the maintenance of the institution during that year, then the balance of the said income, after defraying such maintenance, shall be forthwith invested in good securities, thereafter to be and remain a part of the capital;  but, in no event, shall any part of the said capital be sold, disposed of, or pledged, to meet the current expenses of the said institution, to which I devote the interest, income, and dividends thereof, exclusively:  Secondly, I enjoin and require that ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatsoever, shall ever hold or exercise any station or duty whatever 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.

6 For example, an address by Edward Everett, at the Odeon, before the Mercantile Library Association in Boston, September 13, 1838 :  “Few persons, I believe, enjoyed less personal popularity in the community in which he lived and to which he bequeathed his personal fortune. ... A citizen and a patriot he lived in his modest dwelling and plain garb ;  appropriating to his last personal wants the smallest pittance from his princely income ;  living to the last in the dark and narrow street in which he made his fortune ;  and when he died bequeathed it for the education of orphan children.  For the public I do not believe he could have done better,” etc., etc.—Hunt’s “ Merchant’s Magazine,” 1830, 1 :35.

7 “The Public Charities of Philadelphia.”