Philadelphia 1776

Storms had battered the sloop and Girard’s crew was sick and almost ready for mutiny. On May 20, 1776, sixteen days after he left Le Cap Francais, he signaled a British frigate that was blockading the port city of Philadelphia to request water. Instead of sending water, the captain came aboard to search for weapons and gun powder.  Although Girard did not have enough currency, he was able to convince the captain that the sloop’s cargo could serve as collateral.  Girard saw that the port and the harbor were sealed by British naval squadrons. His sloop needed repair but he made his way as far as possible before he realized the folly of trying to enter a busy commercial port without the help of a local pilot which then was ordered to lead Girard’s sloop into the harbor of Philadelphia.

It was purely by accident that Girard landed there for the first time, instead of going on to New York where he knew people and places to get his vessel dry docked. He was not particularly concerned with the uprising in the British colonies. As a Frenchman trading with the West Indies he would not be involved in a rebellion of Americans against their king.  Ships, commerce, and the accumulation of fortune alone occupied his thoughts. Nevertheless his arrival, though he didn’t know it, marked an epoch in his life, for, from that day till his death fifty-five years later, Philadelphia was to be his home.

McMaster provides a vivid description of the life of the city as Girard saw it.  “On the streets he saw Colonial America. The post rider, the lumbering stage wagon, the chimney sweep with his number on his cap, the bellman, the porters with their loads on their backs, the drayman with his long-tailed dray, the slave, the slave merchant, the apprentice boy, the constable wandering about his ward during the day, the watchmen with their lanterns patrolling the streets at night, the poor debtors letting down their caps, by strings, from the windows of the prison in hopes that some charitable passer-by would drop into them a few pence, the women drawing water from the pumps along the streets, were figures familiar enough to Girard.”

The city Girard saw on the bank of the Delaware River where the sea storms and, what he thought at the time, was bad luck was to fill him with interest and fascination. Some biographers say it was on May 20th, his birthday others say in was in June 1776 that he landed in Philadelphia. The fortunes of a sailor's life thus brought Girard to a city that was first in population, and first in trade and commerce, among the cities of the thirteen colonies. At that time, Philadelphia was America’s largest city and the second largest English-speaking city in the world —London being the largest. The population of Philadelphia that year was about 35,000. It would remain the largest American city until 1830 when it was surpassed by New York. Philadelphia seemed to Girard a city of churches and over the years, he helped enhance that image by donating to their continued construction.

In June, the colonies had not yet declared their independence from Britain but tensions ran high. Breaking away from the motherland meant making enemies of one of the strongest naval forces in the world which could cause the new republic considerable grief. Girard had a lot to learn before he would take a position on the side of the American patriots.

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