Haym Salomon: The making of an American legend

On a Yom Kippur morning, during prayers on the holiest day of the year, a representative of General George Washington rushed into a Philadelphia synagogue.
The Revolution against British tyranny was suffering major setbacks in the early years of the conflict. At the core of these setbacks was a struggle to finance the colonists’ cause. But one man would save the day—a Jew born in Poland who immigrated to America and was known as the “Financier of the Revolution.”
His name was Haym Salomon. Immediately after the end of the most solemn day in the Hebrew calendar, Salomon procured the funds that Washington needed so desperately. Salomon the patriot insured ultimate victory. Perhaps many readers have heard this story about a great American-Jewish hero.
But there is a problem: this event never occurred. In fact, not much is known about Haym Salamon‘s financial activities during the American Revolution. He certainly was a patriot who rendered an important service to the emerging nation. His financial advice and skills as a broker were valued by the Founding Fathers.
But he did not provide his own funds to pay for the revolution. Salomon aided the revolution by providing important services as a patriot and a broker who offered financial services to the rebels as a broker, often at no charge. But Haym Salamon was not the “Financier of the Revolution.”
He was not one of the triumvirate with Washington and Robert Morris, despite the statue of the three patriots standing at Wacker Drive in Chicago. The historic Haym Salomon is lost in a myth that, at best, was an expression of love for America by Jewish immigrants who came to these shores. At worst, it is a self-serving distortion of history.
The campaign by Eastern European Jewish immigrants to build a statue honoring Salomon was mired in controversy. According to historian Beth S. Wenger the more established German-Jewish elite in America opposed honoring Salomon publicly. They believed that the newcomers exaggerated the patriot’s role in aiding the Revolution and proposed that other Jewish heroes of 1776 be honored.
The more settled German Jews in America were fearful of a public campaign that might ultimately expose the Jewish community and its chosen hero to severe criticism. Louis Marshall derided Salomon as “only a money lender” whose patriotic contributions had been questioned by historians. Max Kohler insisted that the Salomon memorial was being built “on the pedestal of forgery, fabrication and concealment.”
But the Federation of Polish Jews—the main Eastern European Jewish group insisting the statue should be built—won the day eventually. In the end, the statue of Salomon in Chicago reflects not the reality of 1776 but the reality of a later period of the “melting pot” in American-Jewish history. In books—for both children and adults—the legend became larger and larger and a great departure from the actual history of this Jewish patriot.
There was a deep psychological and social need for Jewish immigrants to feel they had a stake in the founding of America. I doubt that the proponents of the honoring of Salomon as “Financier of the Revolution” were malevolent. But we must be very careful when ideology and psychological need confront history.
The making of legends is often necessary and beneficial to an immigrant group that wants a sense of belonging. But there is no need to whitewash history in order to feel that sense of belonging.