Today: The richest man in America and how he got to be that way.
This is an almost unbelievable and yet a true story of America’s first tycoon, Stephen Girard who got rich against seemingly impossible odds.
Born in 1750 in the French seaport of Bordeaux, Stephen was one of 10 children and never got to go to school. His parents and tutors taught him but he was largely self-educated.
Two childhood tragedies profoundly shaped his life. The first was as a baby he became blind in his right eye. Worse yet, that eye was oversized and stuck in the far right of the socket. He felt it made him look like a freak. Later a skin growth partially covered it making him more “grotesque.”
Some people stared and laughed at him. To avoid their scorn, he often avoided them. But in an “I’ll show you,” state of mind it strongly motivated him to succeed.
The other tragic event happened when Stephen was just 11. His mother died, leaving the shy and lonely boy without her love and support, when he desperately needed it.
To overcome his painful childhood Stephen at the tender age of 13, set sail as an apprentice on a ship his father, a former sea captain, owned. This is where he began the education that made him so rich, and you and I can also gain valuable lessons from it today. What are the lessons?
While most other sailors were content to do their ship board duties and raise some hell on shore, Stephen became an avid student, learning to operate and command a ship at sea. And as most crew members had no interest in their cargo or in business, he focused on both.
It is like today’s long distance truck drivers. Most take pride in their work but don’t get involved in the business end of the cargoes they carry. Yet that’s where the real money is made.
By observing and asking questions, Stephen learned to buy and sell major cargoes such as sugar and coffee and learned to raise money to finance those cargoes. He made business contacts and impressed people with his knowledge and his willingness to work hard to succeed. By the age of 23, he was already a sea captain and doing business deals on the cargoes he carried.
The lesson for us is to be avid students all of our lives, and not restrict our thinking to our current jobs, but to think bigger. And believe we can accomplish so much more if we apply ourselves.
At 24, a voyage took Stephen to New York where he met Thomas Randall, a man with ships and money. Impressed with Stephen, Randall joint ventured with him. Together they made big profits as Stephen bought, sold and delivered goods between New York, New Orleans and the West Indies using Randall’s ships.
This gave Stephen the money to help finance his own ventures. Then when America declared its independence from Britain, seeing enormous opportunity in the Revolution, in 1776 at the age of 26 he settled in Philadelphia, America’s capital and biggest city with 35,000 people.
There he met ship owner / merchant Isaac Hazlehurst who joined the venture with Randall, which gave Stephen more resources. They risked their cargoes from British seizure to make money by buying from and selling goods to the new nation and made a fortune. They then amicably parted company as Stephen could afford to proceed without them and wanted to be his own boss.
This is an important lesson for us, for it is a way people with little money but good ideas can build a great business. By joint venturing their services in exchange for the resources they lack.
Now the money really poured in for Stephen who bought many of the ships that carried his goods and he developed control of a sizeable fleet. Others who shipped goods often did so through him.
While his business success was stunning, his social life struggled. At 26, he married 18-year-old Mary Lum. But eight years into the marriage, she began having severe temper tantrums and was often under medical care. Five years later, doctors declared her an “incurable lunatic,” committed to a mental institution where she spent the rest of her life.
Oddly, six months after being institutionalized Mary gave birth. But the baby girl died less than six months later. Though the father was never known, Stephen paid the medical expenses.
Stephen never married again, having mistresses instead. Also, like many wealthy households of that time, he had slaves. From their labor, Stephen profited as did George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many other American founding fathers from owning slaves.
As an aggressive businessman, Stephen was renowned for making money, not for his interest in social causes. But in 1793 when Yellow Fever devastated Philadelphia, thousands of people fled the city, including President George Washington and most of Congress.
They had good reason to flee. With Yellow Fever, patients became deathly ill, vomiting profusely black hemorrhaged blood and bleeding from the nose and mouth. They shook from chills, burned in fever and suffered from headaches and back pain, while their heart and internal organs began shutting down. And there was no known cure.
In a panic the City seized a mansion and converted it to a hospital but most medical professionals and staff had also fled. Stephen volunteered and took over this hospital. When he arrived, dead and living patients were intermingled, lying in urine, excrement and vomit and receiving little care. Maggots crawled all over the deceased and the stench was staggering.
Stephen helped remove the dead and personally nursed many of the gravely ill, feeding, bathing and encouraging them. He also organized the hospital and oversaw a volunteer staff while often working extreme hours nearly into exhaustion.
When the epidemic ended later that year 5,000 people had died. But because of Stephen’s efforts many others were saved. The public now saw his compassionate side but he was not comfortable with public acclaim and withdrew from it.
Meanwhile there was plenty of business opportunity. In 1791 Congress set-up the First National Bank of the United States to handle the financial needs of the new U.S. government and replace the currencies and individual banks of what had been the 13 colonies.
Whoever controlled this bank had effective financial control of the country. It would be like owning the Federal Reserve System today. Stephen became the bank’s biggest shareholder and profited immensely. Twenty years later when Congress didn’t renew its charter, he bought the bank at fire sale prices, named it Girard Bank, and made another fortune.
A year later came the War of 1812. The U.S. fought England in large part over shipping disputes. But in fighting the war the U.S. went broke and Stephen stepped in. As America’s biggest shipper he helped finance this war. When the U.S. won, he again profited handsomely.
Stephen never retired. In 1829, at 79 he invested in coal mining, making yet another fortune, and two years later, at 81, shortly before passing away, he invested heavily in railroads knowing they would be the vehicle to carry his coal to distant markets. Once again, he made another fortune.
As his life was coming to an end Stephen had no children to leave his incredible fortune to. What he decided to do with his money stunned people. It may surprise you as well.
In the next KazanToday:
What Stephen Girard did with his fortune.