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 started life with a sixpence. When he died he was the wealthiest man in America.

Girard went to sea as a cabin boy before he was 14 and worked his way up to commander. He opened a store in his adopted city, then became a ship owner and banker. During the yellow fever outbreak in 1793, when half the residents fled, Girard became a 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, though he donated to individual churches, named his sailing ships after freethinkers such as Voltaire. Biographer Stephen Simpson wrote that “his opinions were atheistical” and that Girard “utterly disbelieved in all modes of a future existence, and who rejected with inward contempt every formulary of religion, as idle, vain, and unmeaning.”

He left nearly his entire estate, valued at $7.5 million, to charity. 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 in Four Hundred Years of Freethought, Samuel Putnam noted the school had about 1,500 students but that Girard’s provisions had been “shamefully violated.” (D. 1831)

Freedom From Religion Foundation