Who is Stephen Girard?

image of Stephen GirardStephen Girard was born in Bordeaux, France, in 1750, the eldest of nine children. He died in Philadelphia eighty-one years later. Girard was a naturalized American, philanthropist, and banker. He personally saved the U.S. government from financial collapse during the War of 1812 and became one of the all-time wealthiest men in America. (In 2008 Forbes estimated his maximum personal wealth at just under $100 billion.)

In 1793, Girard responded to a yellow fever epidemic by staying in Philadelphia to personally help the sick and dying while most of his peers left the city. He converted a mansion into a hospital using personal funds. Childless, he devoted much of his fortune to philanthropy, particularly the education and welfare of orphans. His legacy is still felt in his adopted home of Philadelphia.

Beyond being a great philanthropist, Girard was a man before his time. He wrote a very interesting will setting aside the bulk of his estate for the establishment of a secular school to which no “ecclesiastic…of any sect whatsoever” could be admitted, even as a visitor, let alone as a teacher. The wording of his will (which he spent most of the last year of his life writing) indicates that he did not want the students to be influenced by religious dogma or sectarianism and that he wanted students to make up their own minds about religious matters. These views are consistent with the Center for Inquiry’s public policy positions.

Girard’s heirs contested the will, arguing that it was contrary to public policy. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld the will but only by interpreting it in a way that was contrary to Girard’s wishes. Even though the intent of his will was not preserved, he at least wrote a will that made his anticlerical sympathies crystal clear. His example poses a continuing challenge to freethinkers and skeptics to use greater foresight to ensure that the intents of their wills are carried out.

On July 31, 2009, the Center for Inquiry established an honorary society to recognize all bequest intentions and deferred gifts to the Center for Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. We have named it the Stephen Girard Society.

Membership in the Stephen Girard Society will be granted for life. In order to be included in the society, please provide us with documentation of your generosity. Documentation may include a copy of the relevant portion of the legal document in which the gift is described or a letter from your attorney affirming your commitment. You can also let us know on the enclosed form if you have included the Center for Inquiry or its affiliated organizations in your planned giving, and we will contact you.

Member recognition includes:

  • A special welcome letter with a certificate
  • A limited edition gift
  • Your name on a special plaque at the Center for Inquiry
  • Invitations to a special yearly event
  • Invitations to special receptions at conferences and other programs

To learn more about becoming a Stephen Girard Society member, please call CFI Development at 800-818-7071 or email development@centerforinquiry.net.