Why Some Succeed While Others Fail: Stephen Girard

Stephen Girard was born in Bordeaux, France, May 24th, 1750. He lived in an age when avenues of business were utilized by the rich. A poor boy had little chance of being other than a poor man. Not only was the subject of this sketch born to poverty, but he also inherited a deformity which made him the butt of ridicule among his vulgar companions. His childhood was made up of neglect which developed a cold, distant nature. He is generally described as a loveless old man, but his biographers seem to forget the influences that surrounded his childhood. Such were the opportunities enjoyed by Girard; such the chance offered to him, but he held that a man’s best capital was “industry,” and this seemed to have been his main idea to the last; as he willed but little property to his relatives, and but little to any one individual.

He sailed as cabin boy at the age of twelve, and by following a line of fidelity, industry and temperance, gained the esteem and confidence of the captain who gradually learned to call him “My Stephen,” and at his death placed him in command of a small vessel. He became a resident of Philadelphia, and owned a farm a short distance out of the city. When he visited this farm he rode in an old gig drawn by a scrawny horse; when he arrived he fell to work like any common hand, and labored as though his very subsistence depended on it. This is an illustration showing the secret of his success in life. He was familiar with every detail, in every department of his business; no matter what part of his business he went to oversee he was no novice.

With Stephen Girard nothing came by chance. He was a self-taught man, having but little education so far as books go; but in the great school of actual business he received a diploma, and to this was afterwards added several complimentary degrees earned after his graduation. He never ceased to be a progressive man. A large range of stores were for sale in the city of Philadelphia at a great sacrifice; these Girard would have been glad to buy but he lacked sufficient funds; seeing it beyond his means to buy safely, he leased them for a term of years and then sublet them at an immense profit.

How few young men have the necessary enterprise to gain for themselves success. Girard had both enterprise and energy; it is not at all surprising that he succeeded. And this was not all; of whatever he undertook he had thoroughly mastered the details, hence was prepared for success and made money; that money he saved. Ah! that is three-fourths of the secret. Most young men earn enough but foolishly throw it away on unnecessaries.

If Girard owed a man a cent he could rest assured that he would get it; if a man owed him there was much trouble in the way for that man if he attempted to evade the payment. He was just to all men and just to himself and family. There is another feature in the history of Girard that is worthy of imitation; that is he kept abreast, yea, ahead of the times,—he made a study of the various problems of his day.

He saw that the United States Bank was daily growing less popular, and he saw that it must go down in the near future. He had prospered in his shipping business, and seeing here a grand opportunity he began to study up on banking preparatory to taking the bank. Reader, think of this kind of enterprise. His friends might think such a thing visionary; the best financier might pass the opportunity by, but this man knew that the United States Bank had a vast patronage, and he also knew that the man who stepped into its business would have every reason to expect success. He at once set about to buy a controlling interest in the stock. When the bank was discontinued it was found that he had not only secured a controlling interest in the stock, but had gained possession of the bank building itself. While his friends were predicting his ruin he had bought $1,200,000 worth of stock and, by so doing, had stepped into the largest banking business of the Republic.

Does one of my readers for one moment allow himself to believe that Stephen Girard was a lucky man? Was it ‘good luck’ that placed Girard at one move at the head of American financiers? As is well known a great panic followed Jackson’s administration, and, of a whole nation, Stephen Girard seems to have been the only prosperous man. His capital stock soon became $4,000,000. In this capacity he was enabled to aid his Government much, in fact to save it from ruin in the terrible crash of 1837.

Stephen Girard was bent upon getting rich and yet, while he is generally regarded as a cold money-getter, still he had a heart, a tender heart, locked up within that cold exterior. While the terrible plague, yellow fever, raged in Philadelphia with a violence never before known in American history, and while many others fled the city, Stephen Girard remained and nursed the dying,—performing with his own hands the most loathesome duties, and giving most liberally of his wealth toward the fund for the suppression of the disease.

A young man, who was a protege of Girard, was one day called to the private office of that gentleman, when the following dialogue took place: “Well, you are now twenty-one, and should begin to think of a life-work.” The young man who thought perhaps Girard was going to set him up in some business, said, “What would you do if in my place, Mr. Girard?” Imagine his astonishment when Mr. Girard replied, “I should learn some trade.” The young man, who was built of the right material, said, “Very well, I will learn the cooper’s trade.” In the course of a few years he received a letter from Mr. Girard ordering the best barrel that he could make with his own hands. When done it was delivered. The young man was thunderstruck when, after a thorough inspection by Girard, he received a check for $20,000; the reader can draw the moral.

Time fled, the 26th of December, 1831, came, and with it the death of this man. At his death he possessed about $9,000,000, not a large fortune compared with those of the rich men of our day, but a colossal sum for his day. For all practical purposes it is just as great and useful as one hundred millions.

When his will was read it was found that he had left to the Pennsylvania institute for deaf and dumb, $20,000; to the Orphan Asylum of Philadelphia, $10,000; for fuel for the poor of Philadelphia, $10,000; to the Philadelphia Public Schools, $10,000; to the Society for the Relief of the Distressed Masters of Ships, $10,000; to the Masonic Loan, $20,000; to the city of Philadelphia, $500,000; and to the State of Pennsylvania, $300,000. There were other bequests, the largest of which was $2,000,000, with which to found a college for orphan boys who were to be taken between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. He left minute directions pertaining to the construction and other details, showing even at this time that carefulness, which characterized his life’s history. The main building is said to be the finest specimen of Grecian architecture in the world,—it surely is the finest in America. “Contemplating the humility of his origin, and contrasting therewith the variety and extent of his works and wealth, the mind is filled with admiration of the man.”