After six long years of war, General Washington finally had the British trapped along the Atlantic coast in a settlement called Yorktown, Virginia. As he and Count de Rochambeau prepared to march their respective armies from the Hudson Highlands in New York to Virginia, Washington discovered that once again, the Continental Army was broke. He needed $20,000. He ordered: "Send for Haym Salomon."
Spy, financier and Patriot, Haym Salomon delivered. The armies moved. The war was won. The financial broker was born in Leszno, Poland, on April 7, 1740, into an Ashkenazi Jewish family, which had fled from Portugal centuries earlier. He became a Revolutionary War hero only to be abandoned by his comrades. He may not have signed the Declaration of Independence, but Haym Salomon nonetheless risked his life, fortune and sacred honor in the Patriot cause -- and he would lose his fortune.
As a young man in Poland, Salomon learned the banking business, became fluent in 10 languages, and worked for Poland's ill-fated struggle for independence from Russia. Like Generals Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski, after the Russians quelled the rebellion, he was attracted by the American cause. Landing in New York City in 1772, he opened up his own brokerage and joined the Sons of Liberty, even though most of his customers were Loyalists.
"When war broke out in 1776, Salomon got a contract to supply American troops in central New York. In 1777, he married Rachel Franks, whose brother Isaac was a lieutenant colonel on George Washington's staff. Their ketubah [a Jewish marriage document] resides at the American Jewish Historical Society," historian Michael Feldberg wrote.
When New York City fell on September 15, 1776, the Sons of Liberty burned a quarter of the town, depriving General William Howe vacated houses to quarter his soldiers. Howe ordered the arrest of the Sons of Liberty. On September 22, 1976, the day the British executed Nathan Hale, the British arrested Salomon.
"A makeshift prison was set up in an old warehouse, called the Old Sugar House" The building was in terrible condition and the prisoners suffered horribly. Salomon became ill with a severe chest cold (pneumonia?). He was transferred to the maximum security prison The Provost where his condition worsened. Haym noticed that the Hessian soldiers that were serving as guards did not speak English, and the British did not speak German. He let the British know he could speak German, without volunteering to be an interpreter. He did not want to be viewed as a British sympathizer. He was soon given the job and received better treatment, food and quarters," historian Donald N. Moran wrote.
Sellout? Hardly. He began talking some of the Hessian soldiers into deserting and joining the American side of the revolution. The British slowly released the Sons of Liberty one by one, and most of them headed for Philadelphia. However, when Salomon was paroled in 1778, he upped his game by becoming a spy for the Culper Ring, a covert espionage operation that was organized by Major Benjamin Tallmadge, who had been a classmate of Nathan Hale. The roster of spies included James Rivington -- the King's official printer -- who scored the best catch of the Culper Ring with his acquisition of the Royal Navy's signal book in 1781, which served as the intelligence that helped the French fleet repel a British flotilla trying to relieve General Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Salomon's service in espionage was limited as within months of his release, the British arrested him for sabotage and sentenced him to death by hanging on August 11, 1778. He used his cunning and financial acumen to escape execution, which is a fancy way of saying he bribed a guard.
"Haym Salomon had planned on this eventuality and had hidden some gold coins in his clothes," historian Donald N. Moran wrote.
Having cheated death twice, Salomon decided not to press his luck and moved with his family to Philadelphia, where he took over the struggling revolution's finances. Salomon quickly networked with the leading financial figures in Philadelphia, brokering a loan of $400,000, money that gave General Washington to finally pay the Continental Army's soldiers in 1779. Thus, Salomon avoided another Valley Forge and earned Washington's confidence and gratitude. Salomon also began sinking his own money into continental bonds. That would prove to be disastrous for his personal finances.
"Salomon negotiated many loans for the colonies from France and Holland, but never took a commission for himself. According to legend, General Washington's appeal for funds with which to maintain his ragged army came to Salomon on Yom Kippur. Devoutly religious, Salomon recognized that love of country was an aspect of his religion. So he turned to the congregation and suspended services to secure pledges for the necessary funds. Only after he obtained the necessary amount needed in pledges did he proceed with the solemn holiday observances," historian Seymour "Sy" Brody wrote.
"It became a regular practice -- the Revolutionary leaders' diaries testify to that when money was needed for the Revolutionary War, you went to Haym Salomon."
But Salomon's work for the colonies in their efforts to gain independence from England was a part-time service. He had lost everything when he left New York City and had to work hard to establish his new financial house in Philadelphia. Robert Morris was the superintendent of finance, Salomon's role was that of the final financier. When the colonies really, really needed money, they went to Haym Salomon, and records show he loaned a total of $600,000 to the effort. He also loaned money interest-free to future presidents Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Historians assume they repaid him, but given Jefferson's lifelong flirtations with bankruptcy and severe debt, it is unlikely all of them did.
After the war, the officials of the new nation operating under the Articles of Confederation forgot about their go-to man. His efforts and those of his descendants to collect the money the nation owed Haym Salomon fell on deaf ears. To add injury to insult, Pennsylvania -- that bastion of liberty -- required public officials to swear an oath to both the New Testament and the Old. Salomon's last political act was the presentation of a petition to the Council of Censors on Dec. 23, 1783, to remove this anti-Semitic condition of employment with the government. Later, the constitution of the state was so amended.
On January 6, 1785, Haym Solomon died of tuberculosis at age 44. He left behind a wife, four children and a mountain of debt because the nation never repaid its debt to him.
"In 1925 a bill was introduced in Congress to erect a statue to Haym Salomon in Washington, D.C., but again, events interceded. The financial crash of 1929 caused the government to renege on the project. In 1926, Congress, did however, officially recognize the contribution to the American Revolution by Salomon, and passed a resolution placing a record of his efforts in the Congressional Record," Donald N. Noran wrote.
However, the city of Chicago came through in 1941,
"In 1941, the George Washington-Robert Morris-Haym Salomon Memorial was erected along Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago. The bronze and stone memorial was conceived by sculptor Lorado Taft and finished by his student, Leonard Crunelle," historian Bob Blythe wrote.
But the money owed him stopped having meaning centuries ago, when his children grew up and his widow died. What is lasting is the gift to the nation he gave in August 1781, when Washington said, "Send for Haym Salomon" -- and the financier came through.
NOTE: The first volume of Exceptional Americans, published by Amazon's Create Space, is now available.