Where would we be without Haym Salomon?

As July 4 approaches, let us look back at the financier of the American Revolution.

‘FUNDS WERE needed to save the American forces commanded by George Washington.’ Pictured: The earliest authenticated portrait of Washington, George Wilson Peale, 1772 (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘FUNDS WERE needed to save the American forces commanded by George Washington.’ Pictured: The earliest authenticated portrait of Washington, George Wilson Peale, 1772
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Several incidents in my life brought me very close to Haym Salomon, even though he died in the 1780s.
The first occurred when I was a student at the Shearith Israel Sunday School in the early 1950s. We were assigned to read a book on a famous Jewish personality. I went to the library and found the biography by Howard Fast titled Haym Salomon, Son of Liberty. The book was an inspirational account of Salomon’s life and what he did to assist George Washington and the Colonial Army. I was very impressed, because I had no idea that any Jew participated in the American Revolution.
The second incident occurred in Chicago. Through the years, I had heard American Jews complaining that there was no real monument to Salomon. We were visiting our son, who was studying at the University of Chicago Law School, and his wife, who was also an attorney. I had seen a photograph in a book about American Jewish history that Chicago, of all places, has a statue with three noted Revolutionary War figures. One was George Washington; the second was Robert Morris, the first treasurer of Colonial America (later called the secretary of treasury); and the third was Salomon, our hero. No explanation; no postcards to buy – but the statue is there in downtown Chicago. I walked over and saw it. It is most impressive.
The third incident was in Wilmington, Delaware, where my family and I lived while I served as a rabbi there from 1970 to 1977. We made aliya from there. Becoming more interested in early American Jewish history, I joined a local movement connected with the founding of the Jewish Historical Society of Delaware in 1974 and the Jewish Archives of the state. Sensitive to US Jewish history, I hoped that Jewry would be included in the official celebration of the America’s in 1976 Bicentennial celebrations. There were funds available from the federal government for institutions, synagogues included, to put on plays, art exhibitions and musical productions relating to the Bicentennial. My synagogue, Beth Shalom, received funds and our cantor produced a short musical play about events in American Jewish history. It was written up as one of the Bicentennial-related projects.
But the big moment was still to come. In 1975, it was announced that an American stamp in Bicentennial series would have as its illustration a drawing of Salomon sitting at a desk and working by candlelight. On it is written, “Financier of the American Revolution.” At one point, I owned a sheet of the Haym Salomon stamps, but in making aliya many years ago, (TOP) A bust of the ‘son of liberty,’ courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The final incident was watching the 1939 Warner Brothers movie Haym Salomon, Son of Liberty, starring Claude Rains. In that movie is a famous scene, often referred to in Salomon pictorial history. The scene shows the Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia. Salomon is sitting there in his finery, along with other members because it is Kol Nidre. A messenger enters the synagogue and finds Salomon. The audience watching the scene hears something about George Washington sending Robert Morris, superintendent of finance in Colonial America. The message was that “funds were needed to save the American Forces commanded by George Washington.” Salomon rises, announces to his fellow congregants that the commander-in-chief needs assistance and leaves the synagogue to raise the funds to help Morris meet the needs of the forces.
That movie made at the beginning of World War II. Later I discovered that the Anti- Defamation League worked with Warner Brothers to demonstrate the patriotism of the American Jew.
SALOMON WAS born in Poland in 1740. He traveled around the world, becoming proficient in German, French, Italian, Russian, Polish and English. He developed an understanding of finance, making friends in Europe’s main banking centers. When Salomon arrived in America in 1775, he joined the Sons of Liberty, a secret order of patriots. When he was caught by the British for his subversive acts against them, he was imprisoned. When it was realized by his captors that Salomon was fluent in several languages, he was released to be an interpreter for the commander of the German Hessian troops.
Because his love of the new nation never ceased, Salomon became an underground agent for the Americans in New York. His main effort was to help French and American prisoners escape British jails. When he was discovered to be undermining the British by helping prisoners to escape, Salomon was interred in a prison ship. Using his stealth talents, he escaped to Philadelphia in 1778. He left his pregnant wife, Rachel Franks, in New York. After she gave birth, he smuggled her and their child into Philadelphia.
Once he was established in Philadelphia, he became a commission merchant and a bill broker. Salomon began to work with Robert Morris, the superintendent of finance for the United States. American historians make it clear that Morris required someone he could trust to help sell bills of exchange coming from Europe, and Morris picked Salomon for this job. In August 1781, Washington and his troops were trying to stop the drive of General Cornwallis in Virginia. A large amount of money was necessary, which Morris sought to raise. Salomon helped him immensely. A record of this assistance is found in Morris’s diary, where he mentions Salomon over 100 times. Fortunately, Cornwallis was defeated in October 1781, and the war was over.
In the next few years, Salomon set up his own finance business, selling bills of exchange, negotiating drafts and floating securities. In Morris’s diary is found this laudatory quote: “This broker [Salomon] has been useful to the public interest, and requests leave to publish himself as broker to the office, to which I have consented, as I do not see that any disadvantage can possibly arise to the public service, but the reverse, and he expects individual benefits therefrom.”
IN 2004, I visited the noted American Judaica collectors Deeane and Arnold Goodman in Allentown, Pennsylvania. When I was welcomed to their home, a large bound volume was brought for me – the Pennsylvania Packet of Philadelphia dated July 29, 1782. In that volume was an ad from Salomon in which he stated, “he was broker not only for the office of finance but also to the consul general of France and to the treasurer of the French army.” He indicated that he would lend money, discount notes, and store and sell tobacco, sugar and tea on commission.
Most active in the Philadelphia Jewish community, he helped build the Mikveh Israel synagogue in 1782. “Haym Salomon made the largest contribution to the building fund and he headed the dedication procession,” a historian notes, “that marched from the old rented quarters in Sterling Alley, and was given the honor of opening the door to the new synagogue.” The rebuilt Mikveh Israel Synagogue of today can be seen on the same street and at the same location as the original synagogue.
James Madison, later president of the US, was a delegate from Virginia to the Continental Congress. Frequently, he needed money and Salomon lent it to him. In August 1782, Madison wrote to a Virginia friend, “I have for some time past been a pensioner in the favor of Haym Salomon, a Jew Broker.” In another letter, Madison wrote, “The kindness of our little friend in Front Street, near the coffeehouse, is a fund which will preserve me from extremities, but I never resort to it without great mortification as he obstinately rejects all recompense.”
Sadly, he died a young man on January 8, 1785, in Philadelphia. This is his obituary in the city’s Independent Gazetteer.
“Thursday last, expired after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and for his integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of the city.”
Let us remember a great Jewish figure who played a key role in the American Revolution.