A discussion about downtown area in Philadelphia and connections from today with its historical past.
City of Rivers and Rivulets
Philadelphia has always been defined by the waters that surround it.
Tourist Walk in Olde Philadelphia
Colonial Philadelphia can be seen in a hard day's walk, if you stick to the center of town.
Touring Philadelphia's Western Regions
Philadelpia County had two hundred farms in 1950, but is now thickly settled in all directions. Western regions along the Schuylkill are still spread out somewhat; with many historic estates.
Up Market Street to Sixth and Walnut
Millions of eye patients have been asked to read the passage from Franklin's autobiography, "I walked up Market Street, etc." which is commonly printed on eye-test cards. Here's your chance to do it.
Philadelphia Changes the Nature of Money
Banking changed its fundamentals, on Third Street in Philadelphia, three different times.
Girard was born in Bordeaux, France and never went to school. By the age of 23, he had become a sea captain, like his father and grandfather. By the age of 27, he owned his own ship and was thus launched on a successful career in a very dangerous occupation. Depending on the destination and weather during that era, up to forty percent of sailors were lost at sea on long voyages. From the point of view of the passengers and shippers, when you were selecting a captain you wanted one who had returned unharmed from many voyages. It was irrelevant whether he had been lucky, or diligent, or had learned a lot from his relatives in the trade.
Stephen Girard did start with a handicap, being born blind in one eye. It may have been a personality disorder which drove him to precise, minute instructions to his subordinates in excruciating detail; he might now be called a "control freak" and be disliked for it. For example, he kept a handwritten copy of all letters he wrote, and at his death, there were 14,000 of them, sorted and filed. His wife went insane, and after spending years at the Pennsylvania Hospital, was buried on the grounds. If this is the price of being rich, some might consider remaining poor. During his working years in Philadelphia, he would normally get to the counting-house at 5 AM, go to his bank at noon, and go to work on his 600-acre farm in South Philadelphia after 5 PM. He said he liked farm work the best. The image left behind by this role model, then, was workaholic. Nevertheless, if you wanted to become the richest man in America, here was the pattern to follow.
Girard probably came as close as any rich man in history, to "taking it with him" when he died. His innately compulsive personality, combined with the sure knowledge that his relatives and others would probably try to break his will for their own benefit, led to the construction of a last will and testament that withstood a century of court challenges. It launched remarkable philanthropy for thousands of orphans and organized the whole Delaware Valley into an industrial machine unlike anything else in the country. Although he left the largest estate in the nation's history, that estate continued to accumulate money from his minute instructions to executors, eventually enlarging his vast fortune fifty-fold, a century after his death. In retrospect, Philadelphia might well have slowly declined into obscurity after the nation's capital moved to Washington in 1800. Instead, the coal, canal, railroad and industrial empire of the Philadelphia region became the "arsenal of the North" during the Civil War, and the main wealth generator of the Gilded Age which followed.
Girard's business career can be somewhat oversimplified as consisting of shipping at the base of his early good fortune, followed by banking during the era when banking was poorly understood and usually ineptly managed. He ended his career with an eager and successful embrace of the emerging Industrial Revolution. Throughout all of this, he characteristically took great risks for great profits, through recognizing what others were too timid to accept fully. On many occasions, his risky ventures resulted in very large losses, made acceptable by other risky ventures proving unexpectedly successful. An example would be Girard's Bank. When the Federal Government first started and then abandoned the First National Bank Girard bought up the remnants and made a great private success of banking, where he had little previous experience. He saw the potential of the canals, and later the railroads when others were content to be farmers or country gentlemen. When he was 79 years old, he purchased vast tracts of wilderness containing some outcroppings of coal, because he could foresee a great industrial future for the region. No pain, no gain.
Another way of looking at Girard was as the most prominent French-American citizen of his time. He arrived in Philadelphia at about the same time Benjamin Franklin stepped off another boat, returning from abusive treatment by British officials which finally flipped him for American independence. Franklin recognized that independence from England meant an alliance with France, or else it meant defeat. It is possible to view the American Revolution as an episode of France searching for an American foothold after its expulsion fifteen years earlier in the French and Indian War; trouble between Britain and its colonies might re-open opportunities for France. Girard was extremely friendly with Thomas Jefferson, the most Francophile of founders and early American presidents. When the War of 1812 with Great Britain threatened disaster for the new American state, Girard staked $8 million dollars, his whole fortune, on financing that war. During the entire period from 1776 to the Louisiana Purchase, America was wavering between its gratitude to France and underlying loyalty to the English-speaking community. During that long formative period, Girard the very rich Frenchman was hovering in the background, probably influencing American foreign policy more than is known, even today. But the France that Girard stood for was neither aristocratic of the LaFayette variety nor intellectual of the Robespierre sort. It was France of the French peasant, crabbed, acquisitive, and morose, forever responding to a "hidden hand" of his own self-interest in a way that paradoxically benefited his whole community, and thus would have hugely amused the Scotsman Adam Smith.
Originally published: Tuesday, June 20, 2006; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019
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