Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Thursday, 24 Teves (January 6) 1785. Haym Salomon, z’l (1740-1785), was a true legend in his own time. In 1975, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor. This stamp was uniquely printed on both the front and the back. The following is on the back: “Financial Hero—Businessman and broker Haym Salomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.” Historians who have studied the story of Salomon all agree that without his major contribution to the cause there would be no America as we all know it today.
This past Chanukah, the legend of Chanukah at Valley Forge during the American Revolution circulated, to the great appreciation of everyone who heard or read about it. On that bitterly cold night, General George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, stood at the highest point in Valley Forge and surveyed his troops encamped below. More than 11,000 soldiers encamped there from 1776 to 1778 were freezing and hungry. Many did not have enough clothing or even shoes or weapons with which to fight and defend themselves. They were often referred to as an army of skeletons. Though they engaged in no battles, more than 3,000 died during the two-year encampment, most from disease.
As the general walked through the camp, snow crunched under his boots. As he approached one hut, he observed some young men lighting a candle and, presumably, whispering a prayer. Then they quietly sang a multi-stanza song. When the general entered the hut, the men jumped to attention. The soldiers explained to the general that they were lighting candles in honor of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Inquiring about the symbolism, the soldiers explained that the downtrodden ancient Jews fought and beat the Greek army who occupied the Holy Land at the time. The miracle of the menorah lights burning for eight days without oil was thus commemorated.
The G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the soldiers continued, helped the few beat the many, the weak beat the strong, and the righteous beat evil. The general absorbed what he was told and responded: “We too have a cruel enemy who leaves us only with the choice of brave resistance or abject submission.” Thoroughly depressed in facing his impossible predicament, the general said “Perhaps we are not as lost as many believe. Miracles do happen.”
In December 1778, General Washington was a guest at the family home of Michael Hart, a prominent Jewish businessman in Easton, Pennsylvania, 70 miles north of Valley Forge. Before supper was served, Michael Hart, z’l (1738-1813), lit his menorah and explained that it was Chanukah. The general acknowledged that he was quite familiar with the holiday, having learned of it a year earlier from Jewish soldiers at Valley Forge. At that time, the general shared, he was about to give up. However, the Jewish soldiers and their reverent observance gave him hope and encouragement to continue. This exchange was recorded for posterity by Michael Hart’s stepdaughter, Luisa B. Hart, in her diary that is still extant.
This beautiful legend is only part of the story. Haym Salomon was born into the poor, observant family of Shlomo Salomon, of Portuguese descent, in Lissa (Leszno), Poland in 1740. At a young age, he left home looking to earn his fortune. In his travels in Europe, he acquired fluency in as many as ten languages. He also gained insight into the values of different currencies. Thus he was able to successfully conduct business with people of different languages using different currencies. His honesty endeared him to his clientele and they trusted him.
Haym returned to Poland from England around 1770, and became involved in Poland’s nationalist movement. He was forced to flee the country in 1772. Haym returned to England, and from there sailed to New York, then under British control since the 1660s. It was a thriving port, the center of commercial and shipping interests in North America. Haym had acquired expertise in finance and accounting practices. He was quickly able to become a broker and commission agent for ships plying the Atlantic.
Arriving in colonial America in 1772, he established himself in New York as a respected and well-liked merchant. In 1777, he married Rachel Franks, a daughter of Moses B. Franks. The Franks were observant Jews and a prominent American family. Haym enthusiastically joined the Sons of Liberty, a secret organization that had been established by men with business interests who were opposed to British rule. Haym was arrested by the British and charged with spying in September 1776, an offense punishable by hanging. His multilingual skills caught the attention of his captors and he was assigned to German General Heister. At the time, the German state of Hesse allowed its soldiers to serve as mercenaries as a revenue-creating measure. These troops, known as Hessians, were in North America to support British rule. As an interpreter for Heister, Salomon was allowed a relatively high degree of freedom. He contributed to the American revolutionary cause by persuading Hessians to switch sides. The state of Pennsylvania was promising land to all soldiers who joined the Continental cause. Salomon was successful in persuading a good number of Hessian mercenaries to join. He was released in recognition of his good behavior in helping the British communicate with the Hessian mercenaries.
Salomon continued to work underground to sway Hessian allegiance, and was jailed a second time in August 1778 as one of several suspects thought to be planning a fire that would destroy the British royal fleet in New York harbor. The suspected strategy also included a series of arson fires in British warehouses. He was sent to the Provost, an infamous prison, and a death sentence loomed. However, Salomon had hidden several gold guineas on himself, as well as his gold watch, which were used to bribe a friendly Hessian jail officer who enthusiastically helped him escape to freedom.
He reached Philadelphia, at that time the center of the independence movement and home to the Continental Congress, the legislative body of the 13 colonies that had declared their autonomy from Britain in 1776. With some borrowed funds, he opened an office as dealer of bills of exchange. His firm on Front Street, near the coffee house where Colonial Army officers and members of the Continental Congress often gathered, began to flourish.
The revolutionary war was in frightening financial straits. The colonies were battling against an extremely wealthy enemy, the British Empire. Keeping the American forces supplied with arms, food, and other supplies was an impossible task. Salomon came to know many leading figures in Philadelphia during this time and brokered a loan of $400,000 that gave General Washington funds to pay his soldiers in 1779. Salomon also contributed his own funds to this aid package. Washington’s messenger arrived at the Mikvah Israel synagogue in Philadelphia on Yom Kippur. Salomon halted the services and pled for support. As soon as the necessary commitments were ensured, the services continued.
Salomon became an associate of prominent Philadelphian Robert Morris, a member of Congress with close ties to Benjamin Franklin. Morris brokered many financial transactions that helped the revolutionary cause gather steam early on. By the winter of 1780-81, the colonial government was broke and Morris was appointed superintendent of finance. Salomon entered into more than 75 financial transactions with Morris between 1781 and 1784, effectively making him the very first licensed stockbroker in the United States. He was basically the only broker for the sale of bills of exchange, bonds sold to provide funds for the war effort and salaries of top government officeholders. Salomon backed many of these with his own assets and personal credit. Moreover, he was the principal broker for subsidies from France and Holland that helped the American independence effort. He turned over all of his earned commissions on these transactions to the cause as well. He was also named an agent for merchandise that was seized by privateers loyal to the colonists, which he sold to help finance the war.
The story of Haym Salomon fills whole libraries. Unquestionably, there was no other contributor and supporter of the Continental cause that compared to him. As noted on the back of the stamp honoring him, he gave “most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.” Sadly, he died at the young age of 45, having caught tuberculosis during his two terms in British prisons. He left his wife a penniless widow with four young children. His fifth child, Haym Moshe Salomon, was born one month after his death.
Salomon had held various financial instruments that had a face value of more than $300,000 ($7,500,000 in today’s money, but essentially worthless at the time). Those instruments were being renegotiated for some value and required the signature of Salomon. Unfortunately, he was too ill at the time to sign and he returned his holy, selfless soul to Heaven that same week.
This year (2015), his yahrzeit is on Thursday, January 15. We, as American Jews, owe him so very much. The very least we can do is remember him and his sacrifices on his yahrzeit.
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.