Stephen Girard -- a place among the heroes

February 04, 1996|By TOM LINTHICUM | TOM LINTHICUM,SUN STAFF

"Stephen Girard: America's First Tycoon," by George Wilson. Combined Books. 400 pages. $27.95

Stephen Girard was an extraordinary man. In fact, he may well be the most extraordinary, least-known man of his era.

True, his was an era of giants. His contemporaries were the Founding Fathers, men whose accomplishments were well-documented and whose names we still encounter every day.

Stephen Girard's name is not prominent today outside Philadelphia, where he settled in 1776 and built his life and fortune. But well it should be, because as George Wilson convincingly demonstrates in this biography, we all owe a lot to Stephen Girard, possibly even our status as an independent nation.

Why? Because this one-eyed, red-haired son of a French sea captain who came to America at the age of 26 hoping to work his way out of debt, not only became the new nation's wealthiest citizen but later pledged every penny to underwrite the government's expenses in the War of 1812. Without his backing, America may well have been forced to sue for peace during the first year of the war.

Impressive as this act was, it was but one of a long list of improbable accomplishments for this self-educated man. Going to sea at the age of 14 as a cabin boy on a merchant vessel, he became a captain at 23.

He sold supplies to the American army during the Revolution. He started his own bank, lending money primarily to small businessmen. Later, however, in separate loans, he would rescue both President Madison and the state of Pennsylvania from bankruptcy.

He was a visionary, opening maritime trade with China, supplying arms and ammunition to Simon Bolivar's revolutionaries fighting Spanish colonialism in Venezuela and investing in American coal fields and railroads.

He risked his life nursing victims of the yellow fever epidemic that swept Philadelphia in 1793.

Upon his death in 1831, he left 98 percent of his vast estate to philanthropic purposes, including $2 million to establish Girard College in Philadelphia, a school for orphans that remains open today.

With such rich subject matter and a backdrop of such momentous events in our nation's history, this book should be a gripping tale. Alas, it is not.

Mr. Wilson's book is the first in the Signpost Biography Series. Michael E. Burke, the series editor, writes that these books are intended to "bridge the gap between academic analyses and good storytelling."

While this work is a long way from academic analysis, too often it falls short of good storytelling. There are too many asides, there is too much detail and sometimes there is just too much verbiage. Rather than learning that the Garonne River in France was 700 yards wide at Bordeaux or that Founder's Hall at Girard College contains more than 12 million bricks, I would have preferred to learn more about the essence of Stephen Girard, especially the forces that drove his limitless compassion and philanthropy.

Nevertheless, Mr. Wilson has performed an important service by writing this book. While it may not tell the story of Stephen Girard in the most vivid, compelling prose, it clearly establishes his place of honor among our nation's heroes.

Tom Linthicum, administrative editor at The Sun, is in charge of budget and personnel for the newsroom. He was the paper's metropolitan editor for eight years and before that, a local reporter.

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