George Wilson's Stephen Girard: The Life and Times of America's First Tycoon is probably the Free Library's best print resource for a comprehensive overview of the life and legacy of Stephen Girard. Girard's name is ubiquitous in Philadelphia, but despite his impact common knowledge of his role in history is surprisingly scarce, even locally. Of course, the institutions and locations which bear Girard's name would be in many ways unrecognizable to him today, so it makes sense that his legacy is not apparent in everyday city life.
Wilson's account of Girard's life in Philadelphia more than 200 years ago provided me with the missing link that I needed to bridge my understanding between the City of Philadelphia's early past and some of its oldest still-standing institutions. Wilson does a good job situating Girard's life within the broader historical context of early America in a way which captures the dynamic mood among the propertied elite of the early republic - a milleu in which Girard was an influential force. Though times have changed and Girard is hardly a relatable figure to modern sensibilities, Wilson writes in a way that makes the reader appreciate Stephen Girard's exceptional talent and eccentric, reclusive, dynamic nature. As a man who came from relative obscurity and rose to hold many of the strings of Trans-Atlantic commerce and finance in his hands while bankrolling a republican turn in the Americas in the years before democratic pressure from the new propertied classes would rock the aristocracies of Europe, Girard embodies the dynamism and political influence of the late 18th and early 19th century bourgeiosie. He is worth learning about for that reason alone.
Most interesting to me however was the way that Girard's legacy would go on to shape Philadelphia in ways he could not have imagined. Life and his own legacy have moved on without Stephen Girard the man, from the property still owned by his estate on 11th St from Market to Chestnut which turned out to be one of the best real estate investments of the 20th century, to Girard College, a boarding school which fought bitterly against racial integration in the name of Girard's will, but is now more or less a part of the fabric of North Philly, complete with a mural of its once-adversary Cecil B. Moore on its northern wall.
For all its detail and fascinating prose, this is ultimately a favorable biography of someone who history has recognized as a classic Great Man, with a great deal of personal influence on Early America and Philadelphia up to the present day. It shys away from any controversy or speculation about the two most contested parts of his personal life: his direct and indirect ownership of enslaved people and his incarceration of his wife, Mary Lum Girard, in the asylum at Pennsylvania Hospital. Wilson takes a no-conjecture approach on these issues and refuses to lay out a range of possibilities for Girard's attitudes and behavior based on the historical context that surrounded him, instead preferring to assume that Girard did not do or think anything for which there is no direct historical evidence. This is not entirely Wilson's Fault: Girard's papers are held by his estate and by Girard College, who have long used their powers as private institutions to gatekeep access to Girard's legacy. Wilson would not have been able to write such a well sourced, thorough biography if he were hoping to write a scathing critique of Girard's life, and unwilling to play ball with the Girard Estate. Nonetheless, The presumption of innocence with which Wilson presents the more controversial aspects of Girard's legacy is the book's greatest weakness, and will strike a well-informed reader steeped in the historical context of the times Girard lived in as naive.
Reviewed by Dan D on Nov 29, 2023
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