Vidal v. Girard’s Executor, 43 U.S. 127 (1844)

Stephen Girard, at his death, was probably the richest man in America. The bulk of his fortune, estimated at close to seven million dollars, he left to the City of Philadelphia to establish a school for ‘‘poor white male orphan’’ children. Additional monies were given for specified municipal improvements. Girard was very specific regarding the institution that would become known as Girard College. For instance, he spelled out in the most minute detail the dimensions of the cellars, planned so as to guarantee that no orphans could ever be housed there.

Two restrictions in the will, however, would prompt Supreme Court review. In the instant case, the controversy arose from the requirement that ‘‘no...minister of any sect...shall ever hold...any station... in the said college; nor...be admitted for any purpose....’’ Two twentieth century Supreme Court cases dealt with the exclusion of non-white orphans. In 1968, the Court ordered the admission of African- American orphans, concluding that the degree of governmental involvement in the college constituted ‘‘state action.’’ Later, the college was opened to girls and to nonorphans.

Vidal was brought by what one story biographer, Gerald T. Dunne, dubbed Girard’s ‘‘passed-over French relatives.’’ They claimed Philadelphia lacked authority to administer the trust, the beneficiaries were not clearly defined, and the prohibition against ministers was antithetical to public policy.

Argument before the Supreme Court lasted for ten days, with Daniel Webster appearing on behalf of the unhappy relatives. Despite Webster’s argument, one that caused ‘‘tears [to] pour from the eyes of sentimental observers’’—critics dismissed it as merely a ‘‘speech’’ as opposed to the ‘‘argument’’ advanced by the attorneys representing the Girard estate—his friend, Justice Joseph Story, was unmoved as were his fellow justices, who according to Story, accepted his opinion without any revisions.

The opinion effectively reversed the Marshall Court’s decision in the case of Baptist Association v. Hart’s Executors (1819) in which Story had himself concurred. Charles Warren in his The Supreme Court in United States History explains that Story’s shift resulted from the publication in 1827 of English precedents dating back to the reign of Elizabeth that had been unavailable in 1819. Their publication convinced Story that Marshall had been wrong in Baptist Association in stating there was no chancery jurisdiction. As to the claim that excluding clergy ‘‘is derogatory and hostile to the Christian religion, and so is void, as being against the common law and public policy of Pennsylvania,’’ Story, while acknowledging ‘‘that the Christian religion is part of the common law’’ and that this is ‘‘a Christian country’’ held ‘‘there is nothing in the devise...inconsistent with the Christian religion....’’ Nothing prevented the orphans being taught the basics of Christianity. In fact, regular religious services were held on Sundays as soon as the College opened, but they were conducted by the president of Girard College, a layman.

FRANCIS GRAHAM LEE

References and Further Reading

  • Arey, Henry W. The Girard College and Its Founder. Philadelphia: C. Sherman, 1857.
  • Dunne, Gerald T. Justice Story and the Rise of the Supreme Court. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1970.
  • Hoffman, John N. Girard Estate Coal Lands in Pennsylvania, 1801–1884. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.
  • Swisher, Carl B. The Taney Court 1836–1864, vol. V of History of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1974.
  • Warren, Charles. The Supreme Court in United States History, Vol. Two. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1922.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Baptist Association v. Hart’s Executors, 17 U.S. 1 (1819)
  • Brown v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 391 U.S. 921 (1968)
  • Pennsylvania v. Board of Directors of City Trusts of the City of Philadelphia, 353 U.S. 230 (1957 and 357 U.S. 570 (1958)

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