Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
Portrait of Adolphus Solomons (copy).

The American Red Cross is forever associated with its founder and president, Clara Barton, but a critical role was played by Adolphus Simeon Solomons (1826-1910), a much beloved Sephardic Jewish businessman, philanthropist, friend of presidents, and advocate for the Jewish community whom Barton characterized as her “good vice president and kind counselor.”

The American Red Cross began when Solomons hosted Barton and others at his home in Washington D.C. to lead an effort to lobby for Congressional approval of the Geneva Conventions, including particularly its provision to establish the International Red Cross. At the initial meeting in 1881, Barton and Solomons drew up a constitution of the American Association of the Red Cross, Barton was elected president and Solomons vice president, and Solomons drafted a Senate resolution endorsing the Geneva Conventions.


On March 1, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur announced his support for the Conventions; the senate ratified the convention a few weeks later on March 16: and, within days, Solomons joined in issuing the first American Red Cross appeal for funds, clothing and supplies to help the victims of disastrous Mississippi River flooding. Arthur appointed both Barton and Solomons to represent the United States at the first International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva (September 1884), but it was Solomons who was appointed by the Congress as its vice president.

Working closely with Barton, Solomons used his extensive business, political, and journalism contacts to generate publicity and raise funds for the Red Cross’s good works. However, a falling-out developed between the two leaders over the dire condition of Russian Jews. As the American agent charged with administering the Baron de Hirsch Fund, an agency that provided Jews with vocational training and assistance, Solomons had broad experience dealing with the czarist government and particular knowledge of its treatment of Jews. It was in his capacity as de Hirsch’s representative that Solomons later wrote on July 30, 1890, to James G. Blaine, President Benjamin Harrison’s Secretary of State, citing a dispatch from London talking of impending mass expulsions of Jews from Russia and asking Blaine to protest on behalf of the U.S. government.

Solomons urged the American Red Cross leadership not to provide Russian relief because the czarist government would misuse the funds and, in particular, because it would purposely fail to provide aid to starving and destitute Russian Jews. Barton’s insistence that Red Cross aid nonetheless pass its relief funds through official Russian channels soured their relationship to the point that she and her supporters refused to nominate him for the vice presidency of the Red Cross at the next election of officers. After all the work and the contributions he had made to the birth and success of the Red Cross, his relationship with the organization came to an unfortunate end but, nonetheless, he created the first training school for nurses in Washington.

Ironically, it is likely that Barton’s ill-advised dismissal of Solomons led to her own forced withdrawal from the leadership of the Red Cross in 1904, when her management of the organization subsequent to Solomons’ departure was broadly condemned.

Solomons’ English father emigrated to the United States in 1810, where he served on the editorial staff of the National Advocate, the Morning Courier, and the New York Enquirer. Adolphus studied at the University of the City of New York before working for a firm of wholesale importers of stationary and fancy goods and becoming its head bookkeeper two years later. He relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1859, where he established the printing house Philip & Solomons, the producer of the best-quality paper at the time; the company earned contracts for government printing for many years, and his bookstore supplied stationery to the House of Representatives through the Civil War. He added a book department, which became literary headquarters for General Ulysses Grant and Chief Justice Salmon Portland Chase, among other leading public figures.

Solomons also established a photographic gallery of many notable figures, including the last photograph ever taken of President Lincoln. He told the remarkable story of the famous “last Lincoln photograph” in Reminiscence of Abraham Lincoln, which was published in The American Hebrew and Jewish Messenger on February 12, 1909:

Copy of final photo of Abraham Lincoln taken on February 5, 1865, at Solomons’ photography shop. The plate negative cracked and the photographer made only a single print, currently held by the Smithsonian, before destroying the negative.

One day while in his office, I casually remarked that I would like very much for him to give us another sitting as those we had been favored with were unsatisfactory to us, and would he permit us to try again, to which he willingly assented. Not long afterwards he sent word that he could come on some Sunday and a date was arranged, which was the second Sunday previous to the Friday night when the assassin, Wilkes Booth, in cold blood shot to death one of the most beloved men G-d ever created.

At the time named by appointment, he came and at my first glance I saw, with regret, that he wore a troubled expression, which, however, was not unusual at that eventful period of our country’s fitful condition, and throwing aside on a chair the gray woolen shawl he was accustomed to wear, Mr. [Alexander] Gardner [director of Solomons’ photographic branch], after several squints at his general make-up, placed him in an artistic position and began his work.

After several snaps during which the President, while making jocular remarks had completely upset the operator’s calculations, I followed Mr. Gardner into his darkroom and learned to my sorrow that he had not succeeded in getting even a fair expression of his countenance, and therefore was much discouraged which, however, was but a repetition of former occasions.

I courageously named the result of my investigation to Mr. Lincoln, whereupon he, noticing, perhaps, my disappointment, said to me “Tell Mr. Gardner to come out in the open, referring to the darkroom, and you, Solomons tell me one of your funny stories and we will see if I can do better.” I complied as best I could, and the result was the likeness as reproduced in these memories.

Solomons also was the paper supplier to the White House, including the paper on which Lincoln wrote his Gettysburg Address; of the five known copies of the famous Address, two of the three final copies bear the Philip & Solomons distinctive watermark. Experts credit the survival of these copies in good condition for over 150 years to the fine quality of the paper on which it was written.

Solomons was a devoted Orthodox Jew through his entire life and he regularly prayed at his home, where he kept a Ner Tamid (eternal light) which he had brought with him from the Shearith Israel synagogue when he moved from New York to D.C. Strictly Shabbat observant, he declined President Grant’s offer to serve as governor of the District of Columbia because it would require him to work on Shabbat. In a January 24, 1862, report on a visit to Solomons’ shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C., The Jewish Messenger noted that “we were pleased to find Mr. S. doing so well in the capital, as he is one of the very few Israelites there who observe the Sabbath.”

Solomons was a founder of the Russian Jews Immigration Aid Society (1881) and the American Jewish Historical Society (1892). As discussed above, he served as honorary trustee and general agent of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, but he also served as a central committee member and American treasurer of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, and as a charter member of the New York Protectory for Jewish Children. As president of the Jewish Theological Seminary Association when it was reorganized in 1902, its teachers’ institute was formed solely through his initiative and, before Solomon Schechter joined the JTS faculty he had been an honored guest at Solomons’ Washington, D.C. home.

Solomons’ passport issued and signed by Secretary of State Daniel Webster.

Solomons actively participated in every presidential inauguration ceremony between Lincoln and Taft. He held a series of public positions through which he exercised his broad influence for the public good, beginning in 1840 at age 14, when he enlisted as color guard in the 3rd Regiment Washington Greys of the New York National Guard and was promoted to Sergeant in 1845. In 1851, Secretary of State Daniel Webster appointed him “Special Bearer of Dispatches to Berlin.” Exhibited here is a remarkable document, the January 24, 1851, passport signed by Webster and issued to “Adolphus S. Solomons” who is “proceeding to Berlin, via London, bearing Dispatches from this Department to the Legation of the United States there . . .”

In 1871, Solomons was elected a member of the House of Representatives for the District of Columbia, serving as chairman of the ways and means committee, and he served on Ulysses Grant’s Inauguration Committee two years later. He raised funds for Adas Israel in Washington, and his friend President Grant became the first chief executive to attend a synagogue dedication when he attended the inauguration of Adas Israel on June 9, 1876 (and donated 10 to the new synagogue). Public respect for Solomons even in non-Jewish circles was such that when Vice President Schuyler Colfax was unable to dedicate the YMCA building, Solomons – a publicly proud Jew – was selected to give the address in his stead.

Solomons was one of the few Jews in Lincoln’s close circle of friends and colleagues, and his contributions to American and world Jewry, which are legion, include tapping his close relationship with the president to convince him to permit Jews to become military chaplains and to rescind General Grant’s infamous December 17, 1862, antisemitic Order Number 11. Lincoln was the first president for whom Kaddish was recited, as Solomons announced that “it was the Israelites’ privilege here, as well as elsewhere, to be the first to offer in their places of worship, prayers for the repose of the soul of Mr. Lincoln.” Solomons also took action to advocate for the Jews trapped in Russia and to meet the considerable crushing needs of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

The Jewish chaplain issue grew out of Secretary of War Simon Cameron’s 1861 refusal to appoint Rabbi Arnold Fischel as Chaplain of the Cameron Dragoons, a New York regiment composed largely of Jews. Cameron cited the Union’s Volunteer Act of 1861, pursuant to which a chaplain could only be “a regular ordained minister of some Christian denomination.” The Board of Delegates of American Israelites sent Rabbi Fischel to Washington to lobby President Lincoln for change but, before meeting the president, he sought Solomons’ guidance, and Solomon’s shop became headquarters for the Jewish community effort to overturn the Union Volunteer Act. The result was that Lincoln signed an amended law on July 17, 1862 that permitted rabbis to serve as chaplains.

Solomons played an equally important role in Lincoln’s recission of General Grant’s infamous Order Number 11, which expelled all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. By its terms, the Order prohibited any appeal to Grant, so Cesar Kaskel, a Kentucky Jew, met with Solomons, who was widely known as an influential Washingtonian with strong White House and Congressional connections and who knew Lincoln well, through whom he was able to gain an audience with the President. Kaskel met with Lincoln on January 3, 1863 – two days after the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation – and, the very next day, an order went out to Grant revoking the Order.

Solomons, who frequently served as an informal advisor to Lincoln, recalled the president telling him a long story in which the main characters had Yiddish names – including “Colonel Chutzpah.” He raised the idea with Lincoln of restoring the Jews of Europe to their ancestral homeland in Eretz Yisrael, to which the president responded positively. Later, on February 12, 1883 (ironically, Lincoln’s birthday), the State Department sought Solomons’ advice and assistance regarding the distribution of charity funds to Americans in Ottoman-ruled Eretz Yisrael.

It was as Webster’s emissary to Berlin that Solomons visited the Jewish ward in a Frankfort Hospital and determined to raise funds to help found Mt. Sinai Hospital. At this time, Jewish leaders were concerned about the ability of the American Jewish community to meet the needs of the tide of Yiddish-speaking immigrants arriving from Russia and Poland, particularly with respect to heath care, so Solomons, as president of Shearith Israel, convened a meeting at the synagogue in 1884 with its rabbi, Henry Pereira Mendes, and others to discuss how best to serve this new wave of immigrants. They decided to establish a new hospital, which was named in commemoration of the centennial of philanthropist Moses Montefiore.

A champion of the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, Solomons played a leading role in the creation of the Billings Report (1890), which was the earliest organized data on the economic status of American Jews and is the only survey exclusively of Jews ever conducted by the Census Bureau. It was initiated by, and conducted with the assistance of, Solomons, who was concerned that there was no process in place to identify Jewish immigrants in the 1890 Census. Solomons organized rabbis, congregational leaders and others to interview Jewish immigrants and to provide their names, dates of birth, health status, and other vital statistics and information for inclusion in the Billings Report. The Report included occupation data, thereby providing the first systematic quantitative data on the economic status of American Jews.

In 1884, Solomons convinced the publisher of Webster’s Dictionary to exclude from its definition of the word “Jew” the antisemitic use of the verb “to Jew him down.” The September 5, 1884, Appleton Journal cites an article by the Journal, which apparently strongly disapproved of Solomon’s meddling with basic dictionary definitions:

Some time ago the publisher of Webster’s Dictionary permitted themselves to be persuaded by Mr. Solomons, a very respectable bookseller in Washington, to tamper with the text of their great work by striking out one of the definitions given to the word “Jew,” explaining an opprobrious sense in which that word had been used for centuries in English literature . . .

The business of a maker of definitions in a dictionary is not to save people’s feelings, but to tell what the words mean, and in what senses they are they are used in literature and in life. It is not their fault that it has become an English idiom to speak of “Jewing down” a tradesman . . . These are the facts and it is their business to record them. When they quit doing it, they quit publishing an honest dictionary and the people who want one must go elsewhere.

A notable example of Solomons using his political connections to benefit Jews is his successful involvement on behalf of the Jewish community of Cuba in 1906. On August 5, eleven English-speaking Jews met at the Havana home of Manuel Hadida to establish a synagogue and Jewish cemetery for the more than 100 Jews in Cuba. However, the Roman Catholic Church, which held a monopoly on burial in Cuba, objected, and Jews continued to be buried in Christian cemeteries. Hadida met with Rabbi Chaim Pereira Méndez, Rav of Shearith Israel, the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue in New York, who referred him to Solomons. Solomons prevailed upon the United States Minister in Cuba to intercede with the Cuban government, which issued a permit for the cemetery.

Hadida commenced soliciting subscriptions for gravesites to finance the community’s purchase of the land and, ironically, the cemetery was officially consecrated in 1910, the year that Solomons died at his home. Solomons’ Shearith Israel cemetery in New York City and his funeral service was officiated by Rabbi Méndez.

Rosalie Solomon Phillips, the daughter of Adolphus Solomons and Rachel Seixas Phillips, became renowned in her own right as a Jewish philanthropist and as a founding member and first chair of Hadassah (1912). She also served as president of the Columbia Religious and Industrial School for Jewish Girls; as vice president of the National Council of Jewish Women; as honorary vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America; and as honorary president of Young Judaea.

Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleIDF Chief Hints Israel Hit Iranian Arms Convoy on Syria-Iraq Border
Next articleHashem Speaks, Prophets Listen
Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at [email protected].