Haym Salomon was not a soldier. He never fought in a battle. Yet, his contributions to the success of the American Revolution were considerable, some would say, pivotal. In my opinion, he was an unsung hero of the American Revolution, and, were it not for him, the colonies would likely never have won their freedom from England. What did he do to earn such high praise? Read on for the answer.
Chaim Salomon was born in Leszno, Poland in 1740 to a family of Sephardic Jews. His ancestors had emigrated from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century when the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, (yes, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who bankrolled Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the New World), had ordered the mass expulsion of Spanish Jews (or, at least, the ones who were not tortured in the Inquisition).
In his youth Salomon travelled extensively throughout Europe. Fortuitously, he developed an affinity for finance and learned to speak several languages fluently, including Hebrew and German.
In 1775 Salomon emigrated to New York where he established himself as a prominent financial broker servicing merchants who were trading internationally. Along the way, he anglicized his first name to “Haym.” Sympathizing with the Patriots he joined the NY branch of the Sons of Liberty. The British arrested him for spying in September 1776, and he spent 18 months on a British prison ship. While imprisoned, he did not languish. He organized the escape of several other prisoners, and being fluent in German, he worked hard to convince some of the Hessian mercenaries on the ship to abandon their support of the British. Eventually, he was pardoned, but in 1778 he was arrested again. This time, he was sentenced to death, but he escaped and made his way to Philadelphia, which was a Patriot hotbed.
Salomon re-established his financial brokerage business in Philadelphia with even greater success. He became the agent to the French consul and the paymaster for French troops in North America. In addition, in 1781 he began working with Robert Morris, who was the Superintendent for Finance for the Thirteen Colonies, to raise funds and establish lines of credit for the Continental Army.
Salomon and Morris made a formidable team for the War effort. The Continental Army was perennially short of supplies and funds. Necessities, such as food, medicine and uniforms, were continually in very short supply. For example, we are all familiar with the story of the devastating winter General Washington’s troops spent at Valley Forge in 1777-78. Soldiers were not being paid. The Continental Congress was tapped out. Many soldiers had simply quit when their enlistment periods ended and returned home. Those that remained were threatening mutiny. By late 1781 the situation had become so dire that Washington was not sure he could outfit the Army for the decisive Battle of Yorktown.
As the story goes, when Morris told Washington that there was no more money and the credit lines were exhausted Washington simply told him to “send for Haym Salomon.” Salomon had become the “go-to” guy for financing. Between 1781 and 1784 he raised over $650,000 (almost $17 million in current dollars) through sales of bills of exchange and personal loans, most of which were never repaid. (Note: a bill of exchange is akin to a promissory note or a modern-day check. It was the primary vehicle by which merchants conducted business for credit.) According to Morris’ diary he called upon Salomon for assistance some 75 times during this period.
Additionally, Salomon actually paid the salaries of many army officers and government officials out of his own funds. Moreover, he personally supported several members of the Continental Congress, such as James Madison and James Wilson, who were staying in Philadelphia. Truly, astounding. Again, these payments and loans were never repaid.
With respect to the Battle of Yorktown, once again, Salomon came through. As we know, the Continental Army, with the assistance of the French navy, trapped the British army on the Yorktown peninsula forcing its surrender and ending the war. Against all odds, the colonies had won their freedom.
In addition to the foregoing Salomon is reputed to have granted bequests to those he considered to be “unsung” heroes of the Revolution – men who had given their time and fortune to the cause. For example, Dr. Bodo Otto, a senior surgeon of the Continental Army, had given up his practice to join up at the ripe old age of 65. He had served for the entire war. Among other things, he had used his own funds to establish and maintain a hospital at Valley Forge. After the war, through Salomon’s largesse, Otto was able to rebuild his medical practice.
Salomon’s story ended very badly and sadly. He died prematurely and penniless at the young age of 44 of tuberculosis. As I said, his loans were never repaid.
Belatedly, Salomon has received some recognition.
- In 1939 Warner Brothers released a movie about his exploits entitled The Sons of Liberty, starring Claude Raines as Salomon.
- In 1941 the renowned author, Howard Fast, published a book about his life entitled Haym Salomon, Son of Liberty.
- Also in 1941 a statue depicting Washington, Morris and Salomon was erected in Chicago. Another one was erected in Los Angeles in 1946.
- During WWII a ship, the SS Haym Salomon, was commissioned in his honor.
- In 1975 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp in his honor.
Fine and well, but the more one learns about Salomon the more one realizes that his contributions can never be repaid adequately.