The timid but determined lad who had landed in Philadelphia just as the young nation was about to declare its independence from Great Britain grew into manhood. He was driven to express his devotion to the United States in many ways over the years. His ability to make large sums of money was not to serve any desire for self-aggrandizement but rather to turn Philadelphia into a city of splendor and accomplishment. When he donated money to several religious denominations to build churches, it was not because he necessarily shared their views but to add to the general beauty of his adoptive home.
Some detractors called his generosity capricious. It may have seemed so but in reality his decisions to give to others came from a deep sense of propriety. When a poor church leader asked Girard for a donation, Girard doubled his request. When an arrogant leader of a prosperous church asked Girard for a check and was disappointed that the sum had not been greater, he asked Girard if he could add a zero to the amount. Girard took the check and tore it up and sent the man off with nothing. This was the same Girard who risked his life daily when his city fell prey to horrible epidemics while helping the poor and the not so poor alike in their time of distress. This was the same man who would leave buckets of coal at the doorstep of homes that would have no other means of heating during the cold Philadelphia winters.
Girard was about to show once again his love and patriotism for his country. For years after the end of the War of Independence, America had to endure the arrogance and disdain of Great Britain as that nation continued to treat the United States with condescension, stealing away American ships and abusing laws against piracy. Attempts at resolving these problems peaceably came to naught. On June 18, 1812, President Madison signed an official declaration of war against Great Britain, a nation the United States had defeated three decades earlier in the War of Independence. Just as America was poorly prepared to fight the British in 1776, America was hardly capable of conducting a war in 1812. Resources and money were lacking. A developing nation such as the US had more urgent needs for money without adding war to its budget. The various embargoes of England and France during the Napoleonic wars, the general invasion of the rights of neutral powers, and the impressment of their seamen by the belligerents, led to a feeling of great resentment in the United States.
The Treasury Department under Albert Gallatin floated a bond issue of sixteen million dollars of which only six million had been sold to support the war. Gallatin then turned to Stephen Girard of Philadelphia and John Jacob Astor of New York and a few smaller financiers for the remaining funds. Girard invested a bit over eight million dollars and John Astor put in about two million. Without demanding the concessions from the government, concessions that he could readily have obtained, Girard displayed the courage and the patriotism that few others could or would. He risked his entire fortune in granting a loan to the Treasury.
The war lasted two years. The Treaty of Ghent officially ended the war in December of 1814. America once more retreated to a peace that was obtained largely because of one man. Girard displayed the confidence in his nation that others lacked. Bold and fearless, wise, and with indomitable spirit, Girard gave America a lesson in courage and love of country that should have been recorded by historians with greater depth, certainly with a more profound passion and eloquence. Professor William Wagner, formerly an apprentice to Girard, mentioned Girard’s role in supporting the US government during the War of 1812 in one of his lectures. He stated:
“During the whole of the War of 1812, Girard’s bank was the very right hand of the national credit. While other banks were contracting, it was Girard who stayed the panic.” When asked why David Parish did not give money to the cause, Wagner said: “David Parish made a fortune speculating in silver and land in upstate New York. Although some authors credit Parish with the Government bailout, in 1813 he owned lots of land but was nearly bankrupt.” This investment was particularly risky because had the war not been won with the money of these men, the new nation might have collapsed and history might have been written in another way.
In addition to offering critical funding to the US Treasury, Girard offered to provide the US Government free use of his fleet of ships and volunteered to serve personally in the war effort without pay. Girard once again had made a daring investment which proved to be profitable as well. He summed up the results of the War of 1812 in a letter to his correspondent, Morton in 1815. Girard wrote: “The peace which has taken place between this country and England will consolidate forever our independence and insure our tranquility.” Quoted from Cheesman Herrick in Stephen Girard, Founder: “Once again Girard demonstrated his true allegiance to the United States over France. Correspondence at this time indicated the high regard in which Girard held America. A letter of Joseph Bonaparte held out to him a temptation to return to France and with his large wealth create a great estate. Girard refused point-blank saying that he did not wish to figure as a great proprietor in a country to which he would never go and under a government inimical to republicans.”
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