More History I Never Knew: The Story of Financier Haym Salomon

"Star of David" configuration on dollar bill.

“Star of David” configuration on dollar bill.

…and perhaps a little legend in the guise of history.

I’d never heard of Haym Salomon, so when I got an email from a regular correspondent about him, I investigated.

That email said that the configuration of stars (depicted) on the Great Seal of the United States is in the shape of a Star of David, arranged that way by order of George Washington. The story goes that Washington asked Salomon, a wealthy Philadelphia Jew, what he would like as a personal reward for his services to the Continental Army. Solomon said he wanted nothing for himself, but he would like something for his people. The Star of David was the result.

That’s a cool tale and it may well be true. There’s no evidence for it, but it’s certainly plausible. This is the rest of the story.

The email also said that Salomon gave $25 million to support Washington’s forces during the dark days of the Revolution. Not exactly true – but there are records that show a combination of Solomon’s personal lending and fund raising resulted in $650,000 for the cause. That’s somewhat north of $16 million in today’s dollars.

For the Record

The Congressional Record of March 25, 1975 reads:

Haym Salomon

Haym Salomon

“When [Robert] Morris was appointed Superintendent of Finance, he turned to Salomon for help in raising the money needed to carry on the war and later to save the emerging nation from financial collapse. Salomon advanced direct loans to the government and also gave generously of his own resources to pay the salaries of government officials and army officers. With frequent entries of “I sent for Haym Salomon”, Morris’ diary for the years 1781–84 records some 75 transactions between the two men.”

George Washington would have good cause to be grateful to Solomon, especially for his efforts before the decisive Battle of Yorktown, where the British finally surrendered.

Financing the Final Blow

It was August 1781. The Continental Army had trapped Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, a community of the coast of Virginia. Washington and the main army and Count de Rochambeau with his French army decided to march from the Hudson Highlands to Yorktown and deliver the final blow. But Washington’s war chest was completely empty, as was that of Congress. Without food, uniforms and supplies, Washington’s troops were close to mutiny.

Washington determined that he needed at least $20,000 to finance the campaign. When Morris told him there were no funds and no credit available, Washington gave him a simple but eloquent order: “Send for Haym Salomon”. Salomon raised $20,000, through the sale of bills of exchange, and Washington conducted the Yorktown campaign, which proved to be the final battle of the Revolution.

That instrument, the bill of exchange, was Haim Salomon’s thing. It’s similar to a promissory note and is traditionally used to finance trade orders. He had come to New York from England in 1775 and set himself up as a broker for merchants engaged in overseas trade.

Fleeing Persecution and Antisemitism

He was born Chaim Salomon in 1740 to a Sephardic Jewish family. Their forebears had migrated to Poland due to the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. He traveled throughout Europe as a young man, gained expertise in finance and on several languages. He went back to Poland but left in 1772 after the Polish partition.

Salomon sided with the colonists during the revolution and joined the New York branch of the Sons of Liberty. In September of 1776, he was arrested as a spy. The British pardoned him, but only after requiring him to spend 18 months on a British boat as an interpreter for Hessian mercenaries – German soldiers siding with the British. Salomon used his position to help prisoners of the British escape and encouraged the Hessians to desert the war effort. In 1778, he was arrested again and sentenced to death. He escaped and fled to Philadelphia.

He opened up shop as a broker in Philadelphia. He also became the agent to the French consul and paymaster for the French forces in North America. In 1781, he began working extensively with Morris, the newly appointed Superintendent for Finance for the Thirteen Colonies.

Commemorative Postage Stamp, 1974-75

Commemorative Postage Stamp, 1974-75

Salomon negotiated the sale of a majority of the war aid from France and the Dutch Republic, selling bills of exchange to American merchants. Salomon also personally supported various members of the Continental Congress during their stay in Philadelphia, including James Madison and James Wilson. He requested below-market interest rates, and he never asked for repayment.  Madison once confessed that “I have for some time … been a pensioner on the favor of Haym Salomon, a Jew broker.”

Salomon was also an important mover and shaker in the Philadelphia Jewish community.  In 1782 he made the largest individual contribution towards the construction of the Congregation Mikveh Israel’s main building.

In 1783, he was one of the prominent Jews involved in the successful effort to have the Pennsylvania Council of Censors remove the religious test oath required for office-holding under the State Constitution. These test laws were originally written to disenfranchise the Quaker, who objected to taking oaths at all.

Salomon’s friend Robert Morris was the one who introduced legislation to end the test laws in Pennsylvania. In 1784, Salomon answered anti-Semitic slander in the press by stating: “I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens.”

Like Morris, Salomon spent time in prison after the war. Salomon died suddenly and in poverty on January 8, 1785 after contracting tuberculosis in prison. Due to the failure of governments and private lenders to repay the debt incurred by the war, his family was left penniless at his death at age 44.

A Grateful (?) Nation

The hundreds of thousands of dollars of Continental debt Salomon had bought with his own fortune were worth only about 10 cents on the dollar at the time of his passing. When his son petitioned Congress to recover money he claimed his father was owed by the government, various committees refused to recognize the family’s claims.

Memorial Marker in Philadelphia

Memorial Marker in Philadelphia

In 1936, Congress voted to erect a monument to Salomon in the District of Columbia, but funds for the actual construction were never appropriated. In 1974-75, the country did issue a commemorative postage stamp for him, as one of the “Contributors to the Cause.”

Next time you hear some candidate for political office bellowing about “Wall Street,” try to imagine if we’d even have a country, had we not been able to call upon people with financial acumen like Haym Salomon.

And next time you hear talk of the Founding Fathers of our nation, remember Haym Salomon. This was a man who, within five years of his arrival in Philadelphia, advanced from penniless fugitive to respected businessman, philanthropist and defender of his people.

He risked his fortune, pledged his good name and credit on behalf of the Revolution, and stood up for religious liberty. A true American patriot, indeed. It’s too bad he’s not better known through the teaching of American history.

I finally know about him. And so do you. We both now know the rest of the story.

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