You won’t find the name Haym Solomon in text books in your local elementary school. U.S. History classes at the finest universities rarely utter his name. But without the dedication of this Polish Jewish immigrant to the American Revolution, the Fourth of July would not be celebrated as Independence Day.
Born in Lesno, Poland in 1740, his parents were refugees, who escaped religious persecution in Portugal. As a young man he traveled extensively throughout Europe learning numerous languages and developing an extensive knowledge of currency and finance.
Through his family and personal experiences, Solomon understood the injustice of life under an oppressive government. He became acquainted with the American colonial struggle against taxation without representation when he came to New York in 1772.
Solomon started a brokerage company that would become very successful and bring him prominent clients loyal to the King of England. However when news surfaced regarding the fighting in Lexington and Concord, his own loyalty was with the colonists’ struggle. He would take up the cause of freedom, joining New York’s revolutionary Sons of Liberty.
Solomon put his life on the line numerous times for the cause.
First arrested in September 1776 with all known members of the Sons of Liberty, Solomon and his cohorts were blamed, and most likely rightfully so, for burning down nearly 500 homes the British planned to use to house their troops. During his time at the inhumane prison known as the “Old Sugar House,” he got pneumonia and almost died.
When he recovered, Solomon noticed that the Hessian prison guards who spoke German could not communicate with their British counterparts. He told the British he spoke the German language and became an interpreter. Under the watchful eye of the British, Solomon nevertheless used his language skills to convince over 500 guards to abandon the throne and join the colonists’ fight for Independence.
Solomon was paroled, but eventually arrested again and sentenced to death on charges of espionage. He was able to escape, and made his way to Philadelphia.
Solomon continued his business and was appointed by Congress as Postmaster to the French military as well as numerous allied-nation ministers. He enjoyed great success, and his financial skills and dedication to the cause brought him to the attention of Minister of Finance, Robert Morris.
Solomon started handling financial transactions for the Continental Congress. He used his network and contacts with other governments to raise money for the military effort and also gave personal loans to members of the new government so they could stay in Philadelphia and continue their work for the new nation.
Solomon’s most famous contribution came in August 1781. British General Charles Cornwallis was struggling in Yorktown against southern forces of the Continental Army. General George Washington needed to march his army to the coastal city to deliver the final blow against the King’s army. But Washington’s forces were near mutiny: Food and supplies had run out and congress had no money to make necessary purchases as well as pay the troops.
It is believed that Washington said to Robert Morris, “Send for Haym Solomon.”
Legend has it that word reached Solomon during “Kol Nidre” services at his Philadelphia synagogue Mikveh Israel on Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day. Solomon, an observant Jew, nevertheless raised $20,000 ($425,000 today), and one version of the event has it that Solomon raised the crucial funds from his fellow congregants.
Now funded, thanks in large part to Solomon, Washington went on to win the final battle of the Revolutionary War.
History books don’t teach our children about Haym Solomon. But without his dedication to liberty and the American Revolution, tea might still be our national drink.
You can find a monument featuring Solomon with George Washington and Robert Morris in downtown Chicago along the river and Wacker Drive. A statue that bears his name can also be found in Los Angeles at Pan Pacific Park. But with these exceptions and the creation of a commemorative stamp in 1975, history and future generations won’t likely know about the priceless contribution of the first prominent Jewish American.
As we celebrate Independence Day and remember the American Revolution, names such as Washington, Franklin and Adams will come to mind. But this year, let’s add another name to our thoughts – a Founding Father whose dedication to the birth of our nation is just as great as the aforementioned patriots, and without his efforts, July 4 would be just another day we’d spend with our families playing cricket.
About the Author: Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.
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