Sunday, October 23, 2011

Meet Haym Solomon

It's amusing that Jews get short shrift in US history, especially since they were highly important in promoting North American independence. By 1776 and the War of Independence, around 2,000 Jews lived in America, most of them Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin. They played a significant role in the struggle for independence, including fighting the British, with Francis Salvador being the first Jew to die, and playing a key role in financing the revolution, with the most important of the financiers being Haym Solomon. Others, like David Salisbury Franksan, despite loyal service in both the Continental Army and the American diplomatic corps, suffered from his association as aide-de-camp for General Benedict Arnold.

Born in Lissa, Poland, in 1740, Salomon (sometimes written as Solomon and Solomons in period documents) spent several years moving around western Europe and England, developing fluency in several languages that served him well for the remainder of his life. When he reached New York City in 1772, he swiftly established himself as a successful merchant and dealer in foreign securities. He struck up an acquaintance with Alexander MacDougall, leader of the New York Sons of Liberty. At that point, Salomon became active in the patriot cause. 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 resides at the American Jewish Historical Society.

In the wake of a fire that destroyed much of New York City, British occupation forces arrested and imprisoned Salomon. He gained release because the British hoped to use his language skills to communicate with their German mercenaries. Instead, Salomon covertly encouraged the Hessians to desert. Arrested again in early 1778, Salomon had his property confiscated. A drum-head court martial sentenced him to hang. Salomon escaped probably with the help of other Sons of Liberty and fled penniless to Philadelphia. His wife and child joined him soon afterward.

In Philadelphia, Salomon resumed his brokerage business. The French Minister appointed him paymaster general of the French forces fighting for the American cause. The Dutch, and Spanish governments also engaged him to sell the securities that supported their loans to the Continental Congress.

Salomon arrived in Philadelphia as the Continental Congress was struggling to raise money to support the war. Congress had no powers of direct taxation and had to rely on requests for money directed to the states, which were mostly refused. The government had no choice but to borrow money and was ultimately bailed out only by loans from the French and Dutch governments.

In 1781, Congress established the Office of Finance to save the United States from fiscal ruin. Salomon allied himself with Superintendent of Finance William Morris and became one of the most effective brokers of bills of exchange to meet federal government expenses. Morris established the Bank of North America and proceeded to finance the Yorktown campaign of Washington and Rochambeau. Morris relied on public-spirited financiers like Salomon to subscribe to the bank, find purchasers for government bills of exchange, and lend their own money to the government. Salomon also personally advanced funds to members of the Continental Congress and other federal officers, charging interest and commissions well below the market rates. James Madison confessed that "I have for some time ... been a pensioner on the favour of Haym Salomon, a Jew broker."

While supporting the national cause, Salomon also played a prominent role in the Philadelphia and national Jewish community affairs. He served as a member of he governing council of Philadelphia's Congregation Mikveh Israel. He was treasurer of Philadelphia's society for indigent travelers, and participated in the nation's first known rabbinic court of arbitration. Salomon helped lead the successful fight to repeal the test oath which barred Jews and other non-Christians from holding public office in Pennsylvania.

He operated within the context of a society, and an age, that considered all Jews as Shylocks and money grubbers. In 1784, writing as "A Jew Broker,' Salomon protested charges that Jewish merchants were profiteering. Salomon thought it unjust that such charges were "cast so indiscriminately on the Jews of this city at large . . . for the faults of a few." His impassioned defence of his fellow Jews brought him national approbation.

Within five years of his arrival in Philadelphia, Salomon 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. Despite financial setbacks at the end of his life, Salomon's name is forever linked to the idealism and success of the American Revolution, and to the contributions Jews have made to the cause of American freedom.

President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when he wrote to the Sephardic congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, in a letter dated August 17, 1790: "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid."

Unfortunately,time has not been kind to the Jews of the United States. There are those who argue that the United States "is a Christian Nation" and that one must be a Christian to be a good American (I saw that sentiment written in the guest book of an Exhibit on Jews in the Civil War that was held in Ford's Theatre). There is the rise of the religious right that seeks to establish religion in US society contrary to the First Amendment.

Instead of recognising that the US was founded by those of many different faiths, some would eradicate the Constitution's prohibition on religious tests found in Article VI. One doesn't need to be Jewish or Muslim, as Mitt Romney and other Mormons can attest. These people of other, religions than of the mainstream love that the US is a secular nation, that is it has no established religion.

See also
Laurens R. Schwartz, Jews and the American Revolution: Haym Salomon and Others (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1987).

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