Every American owes a debt of gratitude to Haym Salomon, the Polish Jew and financial wizard who enabled the ragtag Continental Army to win the Revolutionary War.
Born in 1740, Haym left home at a young age to travel throughout Europe, learning the finance trade as well as several languages.
He emigrated to New York City in 1772, and became a successful broker, dealing in foreign securities.
Haym sympathized with the revolutionary cause and joined the New York Sons of Liberty – a group of fervent American patriots.
In 1776, Haym was arrested by the British and charged with spying – a capital offense. Haym’s captors quickly realized, however, that his exceptional language skills made him a valuable asset, and his life was spared.
Haym spent the next eighteen months on a British ship as an interpreter for Hessian mercenaries – German soldiers working for the British.
Secretly, Haym convinced 500 Hessians to desert and join the American army. He also led other prisoners in a successful escape in 1777. Unfortunately, Haym was soon recaptured by the British and sentenced to death.
Once again, Haym escaped and fled to Philadelphia, the rebel capital. He married Rachel Franks, a young Jewish woman whose brother was a lieutenant colonel on General Washington’s staff.
Haym and Rachel were active participants in the Philadelphia Jewish community and founding members of Congregation Mikveh Israel.
In Philadelphia, Haym started a new brokerage business and prospered. The French minister appointed him paymaster general of the French forces fighting alongside the Americans.
Haym became a major fundraiser and lender to the revolutionary cause, arranging over $650,000 ($374 million today) to finance George Washington’s army.
In 1781, the American Continental Army trapped British General Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia. It was the moment to deliver the final blow, but Washington’s men were close to mutiny. They hadn’t been paid for months, and had no uniforms, food, or supplies. The men were freezing and starving and in no condition to fight.
Washington knew he needed at least $20,000 to complete the campaign. He ordered his treasurer to “send for Haym Salomon.”
Haym feverishly raised money and sold bills of exchange under a personal guarantee, gathering enough to fund the Yorktown campaign – the final battle of the American Revolution.
Alas, after the Revolutionary War, governments and private lenders did not pay back their debts to Haym.
He fell ill, and died in 1785 at age 44, leaving his wife and four children penniless.
His obituary in the Philadelphia Gazetteer read, “Thursday, last, expired, after a lingering illness, Mr. Haym Salomon, 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.”
For his essential contributions to the United States and the fight for human freedom, we honor Haym Salomon as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.