Stephen Girard

On this date in 1750, Stephen Girard was born in Bordeaux, France. The freethinking philanthropist, who settled in Philadelphia in 1776, liked to say he began life with a sixpence. He went to sea as a cabin-boy before he was 14, and worked his way up to commander. Girard opened a store in his adopted city, then became a wealthy ship-owner. During the yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793, when half the residents fled, Girard became a local hero. He not only opened his pocketbook to help, but volunteered as nurse and hospital manager for two months, working directly with the sick and dying. Girard, an arch-critic of clergy and Christianity, named his sailing ships after thinkers such as Voltaire. When he died, Girard was considered the wealthiest person in the United States. He left nearly his entire estate, valued at $7.5 million, to charity. He gave $30,000 to the Pennsylvania hospital, $20,000 to the "deaf and dumb" asylum, $10,000 to the Lancaster public school, $10,000 for the society for "distressed sea captains," $500,000 to the city of Philadelphia, and $300,000 to the state of Pennsylvania for canal construction. He willed more than $5 million for the construction and endowment of a college for orphans, instructing that there should be no sectarian control or instruction (see quote below). Writing in 1894, Samuel Putnam (Four Hundred Years of Freethought) noted that the estate was valued then at $20 million, and had about 1,500 scholars. But Putnam reported that Girard's provisions had been "shamefully violated," with the college under Christian supervision. D. 1831.

“I enjoin and require that no ecclesiastic, missionary, or minister of any sect whatever 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 purpose of the said college. . . . My desire is that all the instructors and teachers in the college shall take pains to instill into the minds of the scholars the purest principles of morality, so that, on their entrance into active life, they may, from inclination and habit, evince benevolence toward their fellow creatures, and a love of truth, sobriety, and industry, adopting at the same time such religious tenets as their matured reason may enable them to prefer.”

—Stephen Girard's bequest terms in endowing a college for orphans

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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