Revolution doesn’t come cheap, and neither does the financing of a brand-new nation. Fortunately for the United States, in 1775, 35-year old Polish Jew Haym Salomon landed in New York City. Though his only ambition was to start a brokerage firm — knowing little of the turmoil roiling the Colonies — Haym would become the greatest individual financier of the Revolutionary War, playing a major role in securing the independence of the new United States of America.
In New York, Haym’s brokerage business took off with wealthy Loyalists. But as he learned more of Britain’s tyranny, he decided to risk his life by joining the Sons of Liberty. When a fire ravaged the British-occupied city, he was imprisoned in a mass arrest of the rebel group. Haym, however, managed to secure his freedom by agreeing to act as translator for the English and Hessian guards who struggled to communicate with one another. His loyalty had not shifted, though; some have speculated that Haym used his role to convince hundreds of Hessian soldiers to defect from the British army. Soon enough Haym was arrested again, this time for espionage — and this time, sentenced to death. But by slipping a few gold coins to a guard, he managed to escape once more.
He fled to Philadelphia, where he restarted his brokerage firm and became an active member of Congregation Mikveh Israel. At a time of rampant anti-Semitic bigotry, the leaders of the Revolution respected Haym, relying on him to help oversee Congress’ financial transactions. He went above and beyond, raising over $650,000 (about $15 million today) for the war, much of which was from his own pocket. In 1781, when George Washington was told that Congress could not afford the $20,000 he needed to march his troops in the north to Yorktown, Virginia, where southern forces had trapped the British army, he simply responded, “Send for Haym Salomon.” Within days, Haym raised the $20,000 (nearly half a million dollars today), allowing Washington’s army to race to Yorktown, winning the final battle of the Revolutionary War.
Unfortunately, at the end of the war the U.S. plunged into financial crisis, and the fledgling government was unable to repay its debts to Haym Salomon. When at age 44 his life was cut short by tuberculosis — likely stemming from his harsh treatment in prison at the start of the war — the American Revolution’s most generous financier died penniless. Bankrupt but an American patriot, Haym was buried in an unmarked grave at Mikveh Israel Cemetery, at 823 Spruce Street, where a memorial now stands in his honor.
This July 4th weekend, as we celebrate our nation’s freedom, stop by and pay your respects to a Jewish American Revolutionary hero. Tours of the historic cemetery are available Tuesdays-Fridays and Sundays, 10 a.m.- 3 p.m., through August 9th.