On this day in 1740, a future American patriot was born in Leszno, Poland. Yes, you heard me right. An American patriot born in Poland!
One of the things that has *always* made our country great is the wonderful diversity of the people who have made their way to our shores and fought for freedom and opportunity.
This particular patriot’s name was Haym Salomon. He was a Jewish man (probably) of Portuguese descent. He’s another of those patriots who fought for our freedom, but have somehow failed to gain too much attention in our schools’ textbooks.
Little is known of Salomon’s early life except that he apparently traveled Europe a bit and become fluent in many languages. (This skill would become valuable later.) Salomon made his way to America in the early 1770’s. Once in America, he became a well-respected and successful financial broker. But he would eventually risk everything that he had in the fight for independence.
At this point, I should tell you that Salomon’s story has become distorted over time, and it can be difficult to separate fact from the fiction. So, we could dismiss Salomon’s story, I suppose, because it is hard to figure out which part is mythology and which part is true. But that would do him a real disservice. One thing about his life seems very obvious: He was dedicated to the cause of the Revolution, and he risked an awful lot to help.
The grand myth is that Salomon personally financed all or part of the war, but that is surely an exaggeration. What he *did* do was to help Founders whose personal affairs were suffering while they served in the war. For instance, he apparently made personal loans to members of the Continental Congress who could not tend to their affairs at home. James Madison wrote in September 1782 that the “kindness of our little friend in Front Street near the Coffee House is a fund which will preserve me from extremities, but I never resort to it without great mortification, as he obstinately rejects all recompense.”
Salomon was active with the Sons of Liberty and was arrested by the British for being a spy. He was later pardoned and released from jail because the British wanted him to act as a translator for their German troops. Salomon, however, began aiding and abetting those Germans that wanted to dessert! He was arrested and imprisoned again. This time, he was sentenced to death, but he managed to escape. When he escaped, he wrote the Continental Congress that he had “most irrecoverably lost all his effects and . . . left his distressed wife and a child of a month old at New York . . . .”
Later, he helped to sell U.S. government securities, which were needed to finance the war. Such a job had to be much harder than it sounds. He was selling government securities for a government that (to some) did not exist. Maybe not the best investment? But his personal reputation enabled him to accomplish this difficult task.
When Solomon died unexpectedly in 1785, he had no assets.
The abundant (and obviously not quite true) mythology may have made it impossible for us to ever fully know Haym Salomon’s story. But we should at least know that there *is* a story to tell about him.
Hugh T. Harrington, Financial Hero? (Journal of the American Revolution; Jan. 9, 2013)
Lee Levinger, A History of the Jews in the United States (rev. ed. 16th printing 1952)
Letter from James Madison to Edmund Randolph (Aug. 27, 1782)
Letter from James Madison to Edmund Randolph (Sept. 30, 1782)
Madison C. Peters, Haym Salomon: The Financier of the Revolution (1911)
Morris U. Schappes, Excerpts from Robert Morris' "Diaries in the Office of Finance, 1781–1784", Referring to Haym Salomon and Other Jews (American Jewish Historical Quarterly; Sept. 1977)