This Day in Jewish History

1890: A Man Who Ruled Wall Street and Wanted Washington to Buy Cuba Dies

August Belmont came under the wing of the Rothschilds and, moving swiftly in crisis, became huge in investments. And horses. And politics.

August Belmont, a daguerrotype created some time between 1844 and 1860.
Wikimedia Commons

On November 24, 1890, August Belmont – one of 19th-century America’s top financiers, a leader of the Democratic Party during and following the Civil War, and a horse breeder for whom the third “jewel” in racing’s Triple Crown is named – died, at age 73.

Aaron (his Hebrew name) Belmont was born in Alzey, a town in Hesse, Prussia (today Germany) on December 8, 1816 (some sources say 1813). Belmont claimed descent from the Belmonte family of Portuguese Jews; more recently, in Germany, the family had been called “Schoenberg,” which, like “Belmont,” means “beautiful mount.”

Aaron/August’s father was Simon Belmont, a businessman and lawyer, and president of his town’s synagogue, and his mother was the former Frederika Elsass.

After Frederika’s death, August went to live with his paternal grandmother, Gertrude Hanau, in Frankfurt. Gertrude’s second husband had ties with the Rothschild banking family of that city, connections that came in handy when August was 12, and financial difficulties at home meant that he had to leave school.

Interning with the Rothschilds

The Rothschild banking group took August in as a trainee, a job that required him to sweep floors and polish furniture, but also gave him the opportunity to be tutored in English, French and accounting. From there, he moved up to be a confidential clerk, then secretary to a partner in the bank, which led to several years of work in Italy.

In 1837, the Rothschilds sent the young Belmont to represent them in Cuba. During his trans-Atlantic voyage, both Europe and the United States were paralyzed by financial crises, and when Belmont arrived in New York, for a layover before continuing on to Havana, he learned that the agency representing the Rothschild interests in the U.S. had gone bankrupt.

Oil on canvas painting by Wouterus Verschuur (1812-1874), showing August Belmont in a horse carriage with an unidentified girl, and a second carriage with an unidentified woman.
Lupo, Wikimedia Commons

Realizing that fast action would be needed to preserve the Rothschilds' interests in America, Belmont decided independently to remain in New York. He set up an office on Wall Street, and took advantage of the economic panic to buy up securities. As a result, both he and the Rothschilds came out of the depression better off than they went into it.

It took  little time for Belmont, who invested mainly in tobacco and cotton and also handled foreign-exchange currency transactions, to become a major player on Wall Street. By the time of the Mexican-American War, in 1846, he was the principal underwriter of most of the loans taken by the U.S. Treasury.

'Dabbling' in politics

Belmont also shrewdly advanced his personal status in American society. He joined the Episcopal church, and in 1849, married Caroline Slidell Perry, daughter of a naval commodore, Matthew Perry; he renovated a mansion on Fifth Ave; he bought a 1200-acre farm in Babylon, Long Island; and he began dabbling in politics, eventually becoming chairman of the Democratic National Party.

During the 1850s, Belmont had spent several years representing the U.S. in The Hague, and was involved in advancing a plan – unsuccessfully -- to have the U.S. buy Cuba from Spain, and join it to the Union as a slave state.

Belmont was not a supporter of slavery, but his first priority, until war between the North and the South became inevitable, was to keep the union together, as secession, he knew, would be very bad for business. He supported Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate for president in 1860, but when Abraham Lincoln was elected and the Civil War began, he used all his influence to try convince Europeans not to recognize or do business with the Confederacy.

In that he succeeded, though he failed to convince the Rothschilds to loan money to the Union.

Following the war, Belmont, often in tandem with J.P Morgan, advanced bond issues for the railroads and industry. He also became seriously involved in raising thoroughbred horses at his farm, and financed construction of the Bronx racetrack that was the first home of what became the Belmont Stakes, the annual race for three-year-old thoroughbreds that, together with the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, makes up racing’s Triple Crown.

August Belmont died on this date in 1890, several days after contracting pneumonia while judging a horse show at Madison Square Garden, in New York.  

A horse race at Belmont Park: Picture shows three horses heading down the main track at Belmont Park, Long Island. The track is named after August Belmont.
DFmock, Wikimedia Commons