Philadelphia broker Haym Salomon (1740-1785) played a vital role in ensuring that the American colonies' fight to win independence from the British crown continued. During the 1770s, he brokered a number of large financial transactions that kept American soldiers clothed, fed, and armed. It is thought that this Jewish emigrant contributed much of his own assets to the war for independence because he died deeply in debt.
Haym Salomon was born in 1740 to a family of Portuguese Jews. His parents had been driven out of the Iberian peninsula by anti-Semitic laws enacted by the Spanish monarchy, and settled in Lissa (now Leszno), a part of Poland that, at the time, belonged to the kingdom of Prussia. The Jewish villages in the area, however, were sometimes decimated by vicious pogroms: a crime or incident would occur, Jews in the area came under suspicion for it, and then mob violence resulted in widespread incidents of assault, murder, and property destruction. One such conflagration threatened Lissa when Salomon was a young man, and caused him to flee to Holland.
It was probably during the 1760s that Salomon traveled in Europe. By the time he reached the British colonies he had acquired fluency in several languages. It is also thought that he possessed some university education. Salomon returned to Poland around 1770, but likely became involved in Poland's nationalist movement and was forced to flee the country again in 1772. This was the same year that the first of several partitions of Poland occurred, in which its neighbors allied to seize and divide amongst themselves Polish lands and effectively erase the country from the map. Salomon went first to England, and from there sailed to New York, under British control since the 1660s. It was a thriving port, and the center of commercial and shipping interests in North America. Salomon evidently possessed some knowledge of finance and accounting practices. He was able to find a job as a broker and commission agent for ships plying the Atlantic.
Acts of Sedition
During this time Salomon continued his political activism. He was active in a secret group, the Sons of Liberty, which had been established by men with business interests who were opposed to British rule. The Crown's colonial system ensured that a large part of the profits generated in the New World went to the British Exchequer, not the merchants and other colonial businessmen. Under unknown circumstances, Salomon was arrested by the British and charged with spying in September 1776. His multilingual skills caused his captors to station him with a German general named Heister. At the time, the German state of Hesse allowed its soldiers to serve as mercenaries as a revenue-creating measure. These troops, known as Hessians, were in North America to support British rule. As an interpreter for Heister, Salomon was allowed a relatively high degree of freedom. He contributed to the American revolutionary cause by persuading Hessians to switch sides.
After Salomon was released from custody, he married Rachel Franks, the daughter of a prominent merchant, in January 1777. He continued to work underground to sway Hessian allegiance, and was jailed a second time in August 1778 as one of several suspects thought to be planning a fire that would destroy the British royal fleet in New York harbor. The strategy also included a series of arson fires in British warehouses. He was sent to the Provost, an infamous prison, and a death sentence loomed. However, Salomon had hidden several gold guineas on himself, which were used to bribe a jailer and escape to freedom.
Success in Philadelphia
Salomon left British-occupied New York and crossed into New Jersey and then Pennsylvania. At the time, the city of Philadelphia was the center of the independence movement and home to the Continental Congress, the legislative body of the thirteen colonies that had declared their autonomy from Britain in 1776. Salomon spoke before the Second Continental Congress, offering his services and requesting a position, but was turned down. With some borrowed funds, he opened an office as dealer of bills of exchange. His firm on Front Street, near to the Coffee House where Colonial Army officers and members of the Continental Congress often gathered, began to flourish.
The revolutionary cause, in contrast, was in dire financial straits. The colonies were battling against an extremely wealthy enemy, the British Empire. Keeping the American forces supplied with arms, food, and other supplies, was a daunting task. Salomon came to know many leading figures in Philadelphia during this time, and brokered a loan of $400,000 that gave George Washington, head of the Continental Army, funds to pay his soldiers in 1779. It is thought that Salomon may have contributed his own funds to this aid package.
A Key Figure
Salomon became an associate of prominent Philadelphian Robert Morris, a member of Congress with close ties to Benjamin Franklin. Morris brokered many financial transactions that helped the revolutionary cause gather steam early on. By the winter of 1780-81 the colonial government was broke and Morris was appointed superintendent of finance. Salomon entered into more than seventy-five financial transactions with Morris between 1781 and 1784. He was almost the only broker for the sale of bills of exchange—bonds sold to provide funds for the war effort and salaries of top government officeholders. Salomon may have backed many of these with his own assets. Moreover, he was the principal broker for subsidies from France and Holland to help the American independence effort, and turned over his commissions on these transactions to the cause as well. He was also named an agent for merchandise that was seized by privateers loyal to the colonists, which he sold to help finance the war.
Records show that Salomon advanced in specie over $211,000 to Morris when the latter was superintendent of finance, and entered into other transactions with the government to the tune of over $353,000. There were also several promissory notes totaling $92,000. In all, the sum that Salomon advanced to help the war cause was over $658,000, an amount which was later recognized by Congress as valid. Some of these transactions were in specie or on revolutionary paper, and as such declined considerably in value after the war. The loans that Salomon advanced to men such as future presidents James Madison and James Monroe were assumed to have been settled between the parties.
Salomon maintained his Philadelphia brokerage throughout these years, and was also a devout practitioner of his faith. He was active in the city's Congregation Mikveh Israel, and once appeared before the Board of Censors to speak in opposition to a religious oath required of civil servants designed to keep those of the Jewish faith from such jobs. His firm began to experience financial losses after a 1783 recession, and he planned to relocate to New York City in 1785. According to one story, he petitioned the government for repayment, and was sent a sheaf of documents on a Saturday, the Jewish holy day. Salomon would not sign them because of the Sabbath laws against transacting business. On Monday he fell gravely ill. Other sources note that he had not yet tabulated the debts and presented his claim officially. What is certain is that Salomon died on January 6, 1785 in Philadelphia, a death attributed to tuberculosis.
Services Rendered, then Forgotten
When Salomon died at the age of 45, he was a bankrupt man with a wife, three children under the age of seven, and a fourth on the way. His estate was valued at $44,000, but had liabilities of $45,000. Not long after his death, his chief clerk, who could have been crucial to straightening out financial matters regarding the family debt, committed suicide. Attempts were made by his heirs over the next few years to obtain some retribution, but a series of suspect occurrences thwarted these challenges. It was alleged by the government, for instance, that papers concerning the Salomon estate claims were destroyed when government buildings in the District of Columbia were burned by the British in the War of 1812.
Salomon's fourth child, Haym Jr., met with President John Tyler in the early 1840s and reportedly left a sheaf of documents with him for his perusal. The box of papers later disappeared. The younger Salomon then petitioned the Senate Committee on Revolutionary Claims until 1864, when he was in his late seventies. He even offered to settle the claim at a sum of just $100,000. This was quite generous considering that, with interest, the actual amount owed would have spiraled to a debt of grand proportions. At this the Committee once more approved the claim's legitimacy and submitted it to Congress, which again failed to approve the expenditure.
A Shameful Legacy
At some point after the 1860s, a cache of Salomon papers remaining in Congressional archives was discovered to be missing. Many of them concerned financial dealings and bore the signatures of Washington, Jefferson, and other historic figures. They were likely pilfered for the value of these autographs. In 1893, Salomon's heirs petitioned Congress to strike a commemorative medal in honor of their patriotic forebear, with a Congressional appropriation submitted in the amount of $250, but this was also rejected. Future president Woodrow Wilson sat on a committee charged with the task of founding a university in Salomon's honor in 1911, but the project was derailed by World War I.
Salomon, who is buried in the cemetery of Mikveh Israel, was finally commemorated with a Chicago statue by famed sculptor Lorado Taft, and finished by Leonard Crunelle. The heroic memorial depicts Salomon, Morris, and Washington, and was dedicated in 1941 at the corner of Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue. Known as the Heald Square Monument, it bears the inscription: "Symbol of American tolerance and unity and of the cooperation of people of all races and creeds in the upbuilding of the United States."
Further Reading on Haym Salomon
Fast, Howard, Haym Salomon: Son of Liberty, Julian Messner, Inc., 1941.
Hart, Charles Spencer, General Washington's Son of Israel and Other Forgotten Heroes of History, Lippincott, 1937.
Russell, Charles Edward, Haym Salomon and the Revolution, Cosmopolitan Book Corp., 1930.
Schwartz, Laurens B., Jews and the American Revolution: Haym Salomon and Others, McFarland and Co., 1987.