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In the pantheon of American Jewish heroes, Haym Salomon (1740-1785) has attained legendary status. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp hailing Salomon as a “Financial Hero of the American Revolution.” A sculpture depicting Salomon, George Washington and Robert Morris graces East Wacker Drive in Chicago. Beverly Hills, California, is home to an organization called the American Jewish Patriots and Friends of Haym Salomon. However, recognition of Salomon’s contributions did not come until decades after his life.
When Salomon died in 1785, he left a wife and four young children with debts larger than his estate. When his son petitioned Congress to recover money he claimed the government owed his father, various committees refused to recognize the family’s claims. Finally, in 1936 Congress did vote to erect a monument to Salomon in the District of Columbia, but funds for the actual construction were never appropriated.
Born in Lissa, Poland, in 1740, Salomon spent several years moving around western Europe and England, developing fluency in several languages that served him well for the remainder of his life. Reaching New York City in 1772, he swiftly established himself as a successful merchant and dealer in foreign securities. Striking up an acquaintance with Alexander MacDougall, leader of the New York Sons of Liberty, Salomon became active in the patriot cause. When war broke out in 1776, Salomon got a contract to supply American troops in central New York. In 1777, he married Rachel Franks, with whom he had four children.
In the wake of a fire that destroyed much of New York City, British occupation forces arrested and imprisoned Salomon. He gained release because the British hoped to use his language skills to communicate with their German mercenaries. Instead, Salomon covertly encouraged the Hessians to desert. Arrested again in early 1778 for espionage and sabotage, Salomon had his property confiscated. A field court martial sentenced him to hang. Salomon escaped – probably with the help of other Sons of Liberty – and fled penniless to Philadelphia. His wife and child joined him soon afterward.
In Philadelphia, Salomon resumed his currency brokerage business. The French government appointed him paymaster-general of the French forces fighting for the American cause. The Dutch and Spanish governments also engaged him to sell the securities that supported their loans to the Continental Congress.
In 1781, Congress established an Office of Finance to raise funds for the war. Salomon allied himself with superintendent of finance William Morris and became one of the most effective brokers of bills of exchange to meet federal government expenses. Salomon also personally advanced funds to members of the Continental Congress and other federal officers, charging interest and commissions well below the market rates. While attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, James Madison confessed, “I have for some time … been a pensioner on the favor of Haym Salomon, a Jew broker.”
While supporting the national cause, Salomon also played a prominent role in the Philadelphia and national Jewish community affairs. He served as a member of the governing council of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel. He was treasurer of Philadelphia’s society for indigent travelers, and participated in the nation’s first known rabbinic court of arbitration. Salomon helped lead the successful fight to repeal the test oath, which barred Jews and other non-Christians from holding public office in Pennsylvania.
Salomon operated within the context of a society, and an age, that stereotyped Jews as Shylocks and moneygrubbers. In 1784, writing as “A Jew Broker,” Salomon protested charges that Jewish merchants were profiteering from war-related shortages. Salomon thought it unjust that such charges were “cast so indiscriminately on the Jews of this city at large . . . for the faults of a few.” His impassioned defense of his fellow Jews brought him national approbation.
Within five years of his arrival in Philadelphia, Salomon had advanced from penniless fugitive to respected businessman, philanthropist and defender of his people. But his time in prison seems to have undermined his health, and he died insolvent at age 45. Despite the unwillingness of Congress to repay his family, today Haym Salomon is remembered for pledging his good name and credit on behalf of the Revolution, and for advocating for religious toleration.