“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.” —Haym Salomon, referring to legislation introduced by his friend Robert Morris to end government religious test laws in Pennsylvania, in 1784
Salomon’s Polish Origins
Haym Salomon, born in Lissa, Poland, in 1740, was the son of parents who had escaped religious persecution in Portugal. Much of Salomon’s young adulthood was spent traveling and learning numerous languages and business practices. Salomon learned English, Polish, German, Russian, Spanish, and Italian, as well as developing an extensive knowledge of finance.
Hearing tales of tyranny growing up, Salomon’s sensitivity to issues of freedom and justice was already acute upon his arrival in New York, in 1772, where he witnessed the struggle of the Colonists against the unfair tax practices of the British Crown.
Joining a Spirited People
Seeing the potential in joining a spirited people, who are willing to fight for their rights, Salomon started a brokerage company in New York that would become quite successful and much favored by Loyalists and Patriots alike.
When news came of the fighting in Lexington and Concord, Salomon, a Freemason, did not have any trouble deciding where his sympathies lay. He quietly joined up with the New York chapter of the Sons of Liberty.
Risking His Life for the Cause
Salomon risked his life numerous times. He was arrested, in September 1776, along with all known members of the Sons of Liberty, for burning down 500 homes in which the British had planned to quarter troops. During his imprisonment in the squalidness of the Old Sugar House, Salomon almost died of pneumonia.
Upon his recovery, Salomon found that his facility with German allowed him to communicate with his Hessian guards better than the English could, so he applied to be an interpreter for the British. During his time working for the Crown, Salomon convinced over 500 guards to defect and join the Patriots.
After Salomon was paroled, he was eventually re-arrested on espionage charges and sentenced to death. He escaped and made his way, with his family, to Philadelphia.
Salomon Arrives in Philadelphia
In Philadelphia, Salomon was appointed by the Continental Congress to the position of Postmaster to the French military, as well as other important duties. Salomon also continued to operate a business.
Salomon’s talents in finance did not go unnoticed. And his fervent dedication to the Patriot Cause brought him to the attention of Robert Morris, who was Minister of Finance.
Salomon began to arrange the financial affairs of the Congress, and his network of financial contacts turned out to be a great advantage. Salomon was also generous on a personal level, often lending funds to the government out of his own pocket.
Salomon Interrupts Yom Kippur to Save Lives
The most famous story about Salomon concerns his valuable contribution to the war effort, during August 1781. General Cornwallis was fighting the Continental Army in Yorktown, and Washington needed to march to the support of the forces there, in order to deliver the knock-out blow to Cornwallis that could end the war. But Washington’s men had run out of food, as well as the supplies they needed for fighting. To make matters worse, Washington was out of money to procure more of the same. There was much grumbling among the men and the distinct possibility that everything would simply grind to a halt, giving Cornwallis the opening he needed to escape to fight another day.
So, Washington appealed to Robert Morris for funds: “Send for Haym Salomon.” Word at last reached Salomon during Kol Nidre—the ancient Aramaic declaration that initiates evening worship services on the first night of Yom Kippur. Salomon was at temple, in the Philadelphia synagogue called Mikveh Israel, when there was a loud knocking at the door! It was a messenger seeking Haym Salomon. There was a message for him from Morris requesting two Bills of Exchange totaling $20,000.
The rabbi, the cantor, and most of the congregants were dumbfounded. It was, after all, the holiest night of the Jewish calendar. Handling money and conducting business were taboo. But Salomon insisted on interrupting services to care for needs of Washington and his soldiers. Salomon quickly raised all the money requested by securing pledges from among the members of the congregation, before relinquishing control of the synagogue once again to the temple rabbinate. Salomon’s act was life-saving in nature, which is actually more than just cause for interrupting religious services in Judaism. On October 19, 1781, Washington finally prevailed against Cornwallis, ending the war and giving Salomon’s act a heightened importance.
A Pauper’s Death
Haym Salomon died bankrupt, at 44, on January 6, 1785. Salomon left his wife and four children with a debt that wiped out his estate. Salomon never collected on the loans he had issued to pay military officers and government officials during the Revolutionary War. And his heirs were likewise unsuccessful in regaining any of the loan amounts.
Philadelphia’s Independent Gazetteer printed this obituary: “Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city.”
Salomon did eventually have a commemorative stamp issued in his honor, recognizing him as a “Financial Hero,” and the City of Chicago also recognized Salomon, in December 1941, when it erected a statue of Washington flanked by Morris and Salomon, with these words appearing below the likeness of Salomon: “Haym Salomon—Gentleman, Scholar, Patriot. A banker whose only interest was the interest of his Country.”