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Jan. 8, 2021, 2:37 p.m. EST

America’s richest person in 1831 left a legacy that still resonates in 2021

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By Lawrence A. Cunningham

The person who changed my life and has provided me and thousands of others with a valuable education is someone who amassed one of the largest fortunes of his day, and then gave it all away to charity. I’m referring to Stephen Girard (1750-1831), a figure worthy of special attention as 2021 unfolds.  

Girard was a Horatio Alger character. Born in Bordeaux, France, his mother died when he was 12 and two years later his father, a sailor, sent him off to sea. Girard worked his way up from a cabin boy on trading ships in 1764 to sea captain by 1773.  After settling in Philadelphia in 1776, the entrepreneurial mariner and merchant became a leading civic figure. Girard supported the First Bank of the United States, opened his own major bank in 1812, and financed the War of 1812 for the United States with additional support from John Jacob Astor. 

When Girard died in 1831 at age 81, he was America’s richest person.  Girard left virtually his entire estate to found a K-12 boarding school for the education of “poor white male orphans,” from which I graduated in 1980. Girard College for Orphans, as he named it using the French nomenclature for school, has helped to raise more than 70,000 children over its 172 years, graduating some 24,000 from its high school. 

Most of what I know about the finer points of business and investing I owe to Warren Buffett, whom I’ve known and studied for 25 years. But I credit the basics to Girard, whose school instills life’s core principles for success, such as thrift and industry, patience and generosity, honesty and loyalty. 

When I arrived at Girard at age 13 in 1977, the year after my father died, I was immediately immersed in a curriculum that emphasized practical knowledge and worldly wisdom, from business and economics to science and the applied arts.  Extracurricular activities stressed athletics, while residential life training focused on building character.  

It was in 9th-grade English that I got hooked on writing, leading me first to edit the school newspaper, Girard News , and later to writing for a living. In 10th grade, I learned in business administration about the time value of money, compounding, double-entry bookkeeping, financial statement analysis, and the stock market. Civics, in 11th grade, exposed me to the law of supply and demand, consumer psychology and product branding.   

Today, the Girard College curriculum remains practical, updated to include computer science and data analytics.  The core curriculum is college prep — though still focused on training to be productive citizens with successful careers. Girard’s student body now is mostly Black and a majority are female; the school racially integrated in 1968 and went co-ed in 1984.

Graduates of Girard College pursue many walks of life, some entering the military or the trades, and many going on to college and/or graduate school, thanks to alumni scholarships.  A substantial portion are founders, owners and operators of their own businesses — many are multi-millionaires. Alumni include professional athletes, musicians, architects, attorneys, professors and a Pulitzer Prize winner.

We study Girard’s own life for its lessons in being resilient, compassionate, financially astute, patriotic and philanthropic. A timely example: Girard personally ministered to the sick and dying amid the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, which devastated Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, from which all other leaders, including President George Washington, had fled. Historians agree that Girard saved his adopted city. 

We also study the man for his flaws, especially the scorching fact that he was a slaveowner and his bequest was initially solely for “poor white male orphans.” Yet Girard can be seen as both a product of his times and a forward thinker, striving to evolve beyond them. In his era before public education, when only children of the elite earned a proper education, he saw the importance of educating the marginalized. He knew the dangers of the disenfranchised male.

We are all products of our times. An important part of good citizenship and life success is escaping our flaws and evolving with a changing world. Oppressive as 2020 was, it shines transformative spotlights: the vulnerabilities of frontline workers that Girard experienced first-hand; the perils of economic inequality that his bequest tried to ease; the persistence of racial exclusion, which was remedied at Girard College belatedly and posthumously, and the continuing danger of the disenfranchised male, which Girard seemed to see as the greatest threat to America’s promise.  

Girard and his school taught us students the value of both permanent wisdom and social change, along with the virtues of wealth creation and using it to help others. That’s a curriculum for the U.S., now and always. 

Lawrence A. Cunningham is a professor and director of the Quality Shareholders Initiative at George Washington University. His books include Quality ShareholdersDear Shareholder; and The Essays of Warren Buffett.  Cunningham owns stock in Berkshire Hathaway and is a shareholder, director and vice-chairman of the board of Constellation Software. 

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