Haym Solomon is a man of legend according to both meanings of the word. On the one hand, he wrought legendary benefits for the United States; on the other hand, his fame developed into myth.
Haym Solomon arrived from Poland in 5532/1772 at the age of 32 to join the United States’ 3,000 Jews who were floundering in a population of four million. He enjoyed meteoric success thanks to his sharp business instincts and working knowledge of eight languages. Then came the American War of Independence.
In an article titled “Concerning the Jews,” Mark Twain once commented that, “In the United States he (the Jew) was created free in the beginning – he did not need to help, of course.”
Incensed at the accusation that the Jews had no hand in the revolution, Rabbi M.S. Levy shot back a powerful retort, explaining that Twain was grossly mistaken.
“Just after the close of the Revolution the census of the States showed a population of four millions, among whom three thousand were Jews,” he wrote. “The Jewish colonists of that period, comparatively recent settlers and few in number though they were, furnished, as usual in all struggles for liberty, more than their proportion of supporters to the Colonial cause.
“They not only risked their lives, but aided materially with their money to equip and maintain the armies of the Revolution. That they also took an active part in the earliest stages of resistance to the encroachments of the mother country is proved by the signatures to the Non-Importation Resolutions of 1765. Nine Jews signed the resolutions, the adoption of which was the first organized movement in the agitation which eleven years later gave this country its independence from England…”
Levy concluded, “I have collected hundreds of names of Jews, whose services should be sufficient proof of the ‘help’ rendered ‘in the beginning’… It is painful to see that that patriotism which is the Jew’s greatest pride and glory is the object of flings on every occasion, and his loyalty called in question” (Overland Monthly Oct. 1899).
Haym Solomon contributed more to the revolution than any other Jew did. Although he was making a fortune doing business with New Yorkers loyal to Britain, the revolutionary spirit overwhelmed him and he joined the rebel “Sons of Liberty” organization in 5525/1765.
Soon after the British forces seized New York in 5536/1776, a vast fire burnt down about a quarter of the city. Suspecting that Solomon was involved, the British threw him into jail. After freeing him to work as an interpreter for their Hessian (German) mercenaries, Solomon instead invested his energies into persuading them to desert. After a second arrest, Solomon fled to Philadelphia where he began financing the colonies’ struggle against England.
Before a gun or artillery piece reaches the battlefield, it must first be built in a factory and paid for with money. Frequently, a country wins a war in the factory and boardroom before shooting a bullet. For example, a major reason that the Allies crushed the Nazis after their invasion of Europe was their achievement of absolute air superiority, primarily because there was no way the Nazis could produce planes at the dizzying rate of the United States’ giant industries.
Similarly, although the American Revolution was an inexpensive affair by modern standards, costing only about $10 million (about $1.3 billion at current rates), while the first Gulf War cost over $60 billion, America was still in its infancy and George Washington found it as much of a headache to foot its bills as to fight the British. Soldiers and weaponry cost money.
For example, during the long, cold winter of Valley Forge, Washington’s men were consuming about fifteen tons of meat and 168 barrels of fl our every day, and farmers generally demanded compensation in cold cash.
Solomon threw himself into the task of procuring millions of pounds in loans and bonds. According to legend, Washington once appealed to Solomon for cash in the middle of Yom Kippur davening.
With a klap on the bimah, Solomon announced that prayers would not proceed until his fellow congregants pledged enough money to get Washington over the hump. As the war dragged on, the American economy worsened, and by 5541/1781 it was in a downspin.
Historian Ellis P. Oberholzer records that, “In Philadelphia, men who wore the bills (of money) as cockades in their hats marched in a procession through the public streets accompanied by a dog which was covered with a coat of tar in which the despised pieces of paper were thickly set. A workman, it was observed, might lose his wages while he was earning them. A merchant’s profits were wiped out in a night. The government fared no better than any private individual, and when Congress called for taxes, it was paid in its own money, a worthless load of spawn from its own printing presses which would buy nothing for a suffering army.” In desperation, Washington appointed the affluent Robert Morris as Superintendent of Finance to patch the economy. Morris’s close advisor was Haym Solomon – his official title – “Broker to the Office of Finance of the United States.”
Somehow, the U.S. pulled through.
Although it is has been claimed that Solomon did more to finance the revolution than any other person, it can be argued that his boss, Robert Morris, did more than him.
On the other hand, unlike Morris whom people accused of raking in huge profits from his patriotism, Solomon is reputed to have done most of his work gratis or with reduced profits. Ultimately, both men died bankrupt. Another popular claim is that Washington discreetly expressed his eternal gratitude to Solomon by worming two Jewish symbols into the “Great Seal of America” adopted in 5532/1782 that is used thousands of times yearly to seal official documents. Look closely at the illustration of the “Great Seal” on the back of a dollar bill and you may notice that the eagle’s tail (viewed upside down) is shaped somewhat like a menorah, and that the cluster of stars over its head are arranged like a Magen Dovid.
However, working significance into dollar bills is a risky business as was discovered after September 11th when people figured out that folding the new $20 bill in a certain way creates a picture of the burning Twin Towers on one side and the burning Pentagon building on the other. More recently, people have discovered that folding $5, $10, $20, and $50 notes that same way yields a sequence of the Twin Tower tragedy from collision until collapse. Sometimes fact is stranger than fantasy.
Similarly, one can argue that the eagle’s tail, not the American bald eagle, by the way, but the smaller white, crested eagle, is nothing but an eagle tail that happens to have a slight resemblance to a menorah when placed upside down.
Concerning the Magen Dovid, the only comment the seal’s designer, C h a r l e s T h o m s o n , makes about these thirteen stars (representing the Union’s thirteen states) in the official 5542/1782 “Remarks and Explanation” of the Great Seal is that “the Constellation denotes a new State taking its place and rank among other sovereign powers.” In fact, in all the original designs of the seal, the stars are drawn randomly, and the first time they appeared as a Magen Dovid is when the seal mold was engraved.
One can easily argue that the engraver who made the mold repositioned the stars as a Magen Dovid for the sake of order and symmetry.
Washington’s gratitude to the Jews was more substantial than snaking subtle symbols onto a government emblem.
After being hounded by anti-Semitic accusations in the press during 5544/1784, Solomon retorted: “I am a Jew; it is my own nation; I do not despair that we shall obtain every other privilege that we aspire to enjoy along with our fellow-citizens.”
His sentiment was vindicated six years later when Washington sent his famous 5540/1790 “no bigotry no sanction” letter to the Newport Community.
In this letter he wrote: “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship… For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens…
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid… “G. Washington.”
Solomon struggled to escape bankruptcy during the last years of his life. Although it is claimed that the government owed him as much as $8 million dollars, worth about $18 million in our times, this remains unsubstantiated because the relevant papers are buried in the sands of time.
When Solomon died bankrupt in 5545/1785 at the age of 45, his obituary in the “Independent Gazatteer” of Philadelphia was almost insulting:
“Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Solomon, an eminent broker of this city, was a native of Poland, and of the Hebrew nation. He was remarkable for his skill and integrity in his profession, and for his generous and humane deportment. His remains were yesterday deposited in the burial ground of the synagogue of this city .”
On top of that, his burial site is lost, and modern day visitors to the Mikveh Israel cemetery have to content themselves by viewing two plaques set up in his memory. H o w e v e r, A m e r i c a has honored S o l o m o n ’ s memory since then.
In 5653/1893, Congress passed a bill ordering a gold medal struck in recognition of Solomon’s services during the Revolutionary War. In 5731/1971, Chicagoans set up a statue of Solomon, Morris and Washington next to Wacker Drive, and in 5735/1975, a postage stamp was issued in his honor bearing the message:
“Financial Hero—Businessman and broker Haym Solomon was responsible for raising most of the money needed to finance the American Revolution and later to save the new nation from collapse.”