Financing Freedom

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In each of America’s wars there have been thousands of unsung acts of heroism. When called upon, men and women have willingly given their all to see the flag of freedom advance forward. Sometimes their heroism cost the individuals everything they held dear. During the American Revolution, there was a Jewish immigrant who invested his entire life in the cause of American independence though not in the traditional way. He sacrificed his livelihood numerous times to ensure his country’s survival. He skillfully manipulated his enemies without any thought for his own future. His name was Haym Salomon. This is the story of how he unselfishly gave all of himself to the cause of freedom.

Haym Salomon’s hard experiences as a young man created in him a deep yearning for liberty and for justice. He was born in April 1740 in Lissa, Poland to Portuguese Jewish refugees. Although the region was filled with Jewish communities, anti-Semitism was rampant. Haym grew up amid the violent pogroms, or organized massacres, that frequently resulted from Jews being unfairly targeted for crimes or other wrongs for which they were not guilty. By the time he reached young adulthood, he was tired of the violence and decided to leave Poland for Western Europe. As he wandered, he became proficient in finance and languages. By 1770, however, he had begun to grow homesick, so he decided to return to Poland. He found the country in the grip of revolution and joined Counts Casimir Pulaski and Thaddeus Kosciuszko, future military heroes of the American Revolution, in an attempt to liberate Poland from Russian control. The revolution failed, and Poland was divided up. In addition, Russian authorities sought out the ringleaders of the rebellion. With no choice, Salomon once again fled Poland. He eventually reached Great Britain and secured passage on a ship bound for the American colonies. It was not long before he found himself in the middle of another struggle for freedom.

Haym Salomon’s belief in liberty encouraged him to take a vital interest in the political disputes occurring between Britain and America. He reached New York City in late 1772 and established a brokerage firm. As part of his job, he arranged for the shipment of goods between Britain and the colonies and paid ship captains for that delivery. He began to form relationships with like-minded businessmen, and he often discussed Britain’s colonial policy with them. In many of these discussions he drew upon his experiences in Poland. It was obvious he feared that Parliament’s ability to legislate for the colonies without colonial consent would transform colonists into vassals just as the Poles had been. He recognized the scheme depended in part on keeping the current economic policy in place. Under this system, the colonies only traded with Britain, and British merchants established the terms of that trade. Haym detested this economic captivity and longed to break free. His animosity for British policies alienated him from the Loyalists who frequented his firm. Patriots, on the other hand welcomed his cooperation. By the time word reached New Yorkers of Lexington and Concord, it had become common to see him in the company of Alexander MacDougall and other local Sons of Liberty. With the eruption of war, he made no secret about his allegiance. Haym Salomon would give everything he had to see that America succeeded where Poland had failed. His approach to patriotic duty took a unique, and thoroughly essential, path.

Salomon quickly saw that it was his business and financial talents that would prove invaluable to the American cause. After hearing of the desperate plight facing colonial soldiers outside Quebec, Canada, he convinced the New York provisional government to name him a supplier for the army. He set to work buying uniforms, blankets and food and delivering these supplies to the Americans encamped at Forts George and Ticonderoga in upstate New York. These supplies helped the soldiers endure the harsh conditions of winter. He continued to serve the army throughout the early part of 1776. His efforts won the praise of New York’s political leaders. A member of the Albany Committee of Correspondence wrote how Salomon “has hitherto sustained the character of being warmly attached to America.” His exertions to supply the army began to drain his purse, so he decided to return to New York to raise more funds for the effort. He was soon to discover though that his abilities as a supplier opened doors that initially appeared closed.

Salomon arrived in New York just as the British captured the city in September 1776. Accused of being a spy and of helping to ignite a fire that burned down over 490 homes, he was arrested and thrown into a squalid prison known as the “Provost.” It was not long before he came down with a chest cold, possibly pneumonia or tuberculosis. His enemies recognized his genius, however, and put him to work purchasing equipment and provisions for the occupying forces. This capacity required him to serve as a translator between the British and Hessian soldiers. He used this opportunity to sow anti-British sentiment among the Hessians. As a direct result of his persuasive prompting, many German mercenaries became disillusioned and deserted to the American army. In total, over 500 left British service thanks to Salomon. Bringing in supplies also brought him into contact with American prisoners of war. He soon found ways to help them escape back to American lines. He was able to hide both subterfuges for over a year, but in 1778 the British finally uncovered his espionage activities. He was tried and sentenced to death. Unbelievably, he managed to escape it is said, by bribing his guards with a few gold coins he had saved for just such a purpose. He fled New York for the American capital of Philadelphia where his financial acumen was desperately needed to save the Revolution.

Once in Philadelphia, he petitioned the Continental Congress for restitution of his lost property, but Congress was in no position to help. On his own, he established a new brokerage firm in a coffeehouse and by selling bills of exchange began to rebuild his fortune. His work brought him into contact with General Baron von Steuben and Congressman James Madison. When told various delegates could not pay their expenses, Haym often paid the bills himself. In doing so, he earned not only their gratitude but also their trust. This trust led them to name him Postmaster to the French military and liaison to the French, Spanish and Dutch Ambassadors. Through his knowledge of French and Spanish, he helped the ambassadors convert foreign loans into currency that could then be sold to American investors. Word of this success soon reached Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris, who asked Haym to join the Office of Finance. Haym agreed and was soon Morris’ top broker. He sold $200,000 worth of government bonds. If the buyer refused to accept the bond, Haym promised to pay out of his own pocket. His heartfelt devotion garnered accolades from both Congress and George Washington. It was no surprise then that they turned to Haym when the army was in desperate need of money just prior to the Battle of Yorktown.

In autumn 1781 George Washington was leading the army south to Yorktown, Virginia when he made a horrifying discovery — the army’s war chest was empty. He urgently appealed to Congress that his troops required $20,000, but he was told there was neither money nor credit to be found. Washington refused to believe that and sent a four-word request to Superintendent Morris — “Send for Haym Solomon.” Morris did just that, sending an urgent request for Salomon to raise $20,000 any way he could. The story goes that the message reached him while he was in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Believing God was directly calling on him to meet America’s need, he rushed out to perform his duty. Within twenty-four hours he had gathered enough loans to meet the army’s needs. He delivered the money to Morris who in turn delivered it to Washington when he stopped in Philadelphia. The troops were satisfied and enthusiastically marched into Virginia where they besieged the British army and forced it to surrender. The war unofficially ended with the surrender, but Haym’s usefulness was not over yet.

In the last years of his life, Haym struggled to provide his infant nation with financial stability. Seeing the need for a secure financial institution, Salomon joined Morris in chartering the country’s first national bank, the Bank of North America in 1781. Haym not only served on the bank’s board of stockholders, but he also became the bank’s largest depositor. By this time, however, his personal finances were starting to deteriorate. This did not stop him from once again coming to America’s rescue in 1782 when he was called on to scrape together funds to save the U.S. from insolvency. As always, he accomplished the impossible, applauded by Morris and others. He served in the Office of Finance until peace was achieved in 1783 and continued to work with Morris in the Bank of North America. Unfortunately, within three years, the bank and the nation appeared on the brink of collapse. In desperation, Haym poured what little money he had left into buying bank certificates and shoring up the national treasury. Despite literally giving his country his last dollar, he was never reimbursed for the losses he incurred in the name of liberty. He died in January 1785 of tuberculosis, likely caused from his time in prison, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel cemetery.

Haym Salomon was the living embodiment of heroic self-sacrifice for his country. He did not serve at the head of the Continental Army like George Washington or distinguish himself in battle; nor was he an inspiring politician like James Madison. Instead he chose to work behind the scenes seeing to it that the Revolution remained alive. Haym realized war could not be won solely on the battlefield. Winning required leadership, soldiers, arms and ammunition, and a host of other things — and, it required money. Books may not often be written and stories not often told of this truth, but regardless, the fact of the matter remains. Though never repaid and seldom recognized, his actions sowed the seeds for American victory. Among the many other heroes of the American Revolution, we must include at least one more. Haym Salomon’s name stands rightfully alongside those who boldly pledged to each other “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Financing Freedom

  1. Bushell

    Wow- Jake Man!! Inspiring! These behind the scene stories you capture for us of men and women who sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for us is just great stuff! Wow. 🙂

  2. Another truly inspiring story of self sacrifice and selfless devotion to our fledgling nation, albeit in a form most of us don’t think about — financial sacrifice. Wonderful stuff Jake! Keep it up!!

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