On January 6, 1785, Haym Salomon, the Polish-born immigrant to colonial New York who is revered in American history as the financier of the Revolutionary War, died. He was all of 44 years old — and he was bankrupt.
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Details of Salomon’s early life are obscure. What is known that he was born on April 7, 1740, in Leszno (Lissa, in German), in the Polish-Lithuania Commonwealth, to parents of Portuguese-Jewish descent. As a young man he traveled in Germany and France. In 1772, the time of the First Partition of Poland, he moved to London, and sailed for the American colonies three years later.
In New York, Salomon began working as a financial broker for merchants involved in international trade. He married Rachel Franks, from a well-regarded Jewish family. By the mid-1770s, frustration with British rule was boiling over in the colonies, and Salomon was caught up in the revolutionary spirit. He became involved in the Sons of Liberty, an insurrectionist group in New York, and in September 1776, shortly after hostilities broke out, he was arrested by the British, suspected of involvement in burning down residences the royal army had intended to use for billeting troops.
The British rapidly observed that their prisoner had excellent language skills and began using him as an interpreter for the German-speaking Hessian mercenaries fighting with them. Salomon, however, used the opportunity to encourage Hessians to desert. He is also said to have helped American prisoners of war to escape, something Slomon did in August 1778.
Sentenced to death
Salomon was soon arrested again, and sentenced to death, but again he escaped, this time making his way to Philadelphia. There his work as paymaster to the French forces in America, who were also at war with the British, brought him to the attention of Robert Morris, the United States’ newly appointed superintendent of finance.
Cash flow was a major problem for the Americans, and again and again, Salomon devised the financial instruments that kept the new republic solvent. Robert Morris’ diary from 1781-1884 records 75 occasions when, he wrote, “I sent for Haym Salomon.” During that period, Salomon raised some $650,000 for the United States, which in 2013 terms, according to one calculation, would be equivalent to $8.8 billion.
In August 1781, the army of British Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis was trapped in Yorktown, Virginia. George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, wanted to march with his troops from New York. However, lacking both supplies and cash, he ordered Morris to turn to Salomon.
Salomon found the $20,000 Washington needed to march on Yorktown, where the war’s final battle was fought, in October 1781 (although it would be another two years before the Revolutionary War would come to a formal end).
Salomon was notable not only for his financial wizardry but also for his personal generosity, loaning his own money both to the American government and to a number of the individuals leading it. These included James Madison, later America’s fourth president, who in a 1782 letter referred to Salomon as “our little friend in Front street,” in Philadelphia, whose assistance “I never resort to without great mortification, as he obstinately rejects all recompense. The price of money is so usurious that he thinks it ought to be extorted from none but those who aim at profitable speculations.”
Salomon was also among the founders of Philadelphia’s first synagogue, Mikve Israel. In 1783 he participated in an effort — which did not succeed until much later — to get Pennsylvania’s Council of Censors to change its requirement that all office holders take an oath testifying to their belief in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.
At the time of Haym Salomon’s sudden death on this day in 1784, he was owed some $350,000, much of it from the U.S. government, while holding assets of only $35,000. None of the debt was ever repaid, even though efforts by his heirs to come to a settlement with the government persisted for at least a century.
He was buried in the Mikve Israel cemetery. His grave was left unmarked because his family could not afford a commemorative stone.