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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 526

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This is the grave of August Belmont.

Born in 1816 (many sources say 1813, including Wikipedia fwiw) to a Jewish family in Prussia, Belmont grew up mostly in Frankfurt and became an apprentice in a Rothschild bank while he went to school. He started rising in that firm and was appointed as a confidential clerk, taking trips to major cities such as Naples and London for the firm. In 1837, he traveled to Havana to take care of Rothschild business there. While he was on the way, he had a stop in New York. There, he witnessed the Panic of 1837 hit. The Rothschild interests in New York had collapsed. Belmont decided to not go to Havana, stayed in New York, rebuilt Rothschild, and then went into business for himself as a well-connected financier. James de Rothschild himself said of Belmont doing this–which he did without permission–“he is a stupid young man…Such an ass needs to be kept on a short leash.”

Well, August Belmont and Company became one of the first large finance companies in the United States. Belmont was most definitely not someone bothered by scruples, which certainly helped in the era of massive corruption already beginning in the mid-19th century. Rothschild eventually saw him as completely untrustworthy and basically a traitor to them.

But Belmont’s real start came in cotton. He saw the system of American slavery and the wealth it created and saw nothing but opportunities for a financier. Belmont became a major financier of the railroads in the early days of their boom, taking on both national and international transactions in banking and a variety of other fields. With Belmont’s global connections, he became a very important person in the nation. He also became extremely rich, right there with the Vanderbilts and a few others as the first truly wealthy Americans. In 1844, the Austro-Hungarian Empire named him their Consul-General in New York, representing its interests there, which he also personally profited from. He kept that up until 1850, when he resigned because he thought Vienna was not giving enough equality to Hungary and the other parts of the empire. But his interests in politics were also shifting at this time. He embraced being an American too, both defending his financial interests and being a huge supporter of white supremacy. In 1849, he married Caroline Slidell Perry, daughter of the legendary naval officer Matthew Perry and niece of the powerful Louisiana politician and slaver John Slidell. By this time, Rothschild wanted to get rid of him entirely, but he was too socially and politically powerful in the U.S. The fact that he was shipping large amounts of California gold to Europe didn’t hurt.

Belmont would use his money and his new family connections to become a major player in American politics. He was a huge supporter of James Buchanan and first got involved in politics managing his 1852 presidential run. Buchanan didn’t win that round, but did in 1856, giving Belmont a direct line to the presidency. Belmont became a major funder of the Democratic Party under the Pierce presidency. In 1853, Pierce named Belmont the nation’s charge d’affaires to the Netherlands, which was effectively the ambassador. He stayed in Amsterdam for four years. But he remained invoked in American politics during this time, particularly his major support for annexing Cuba to expand and solidify U.S. slavery. He really wanted to be named ambassador to Spain under Buchanan, but that became a diplomatic impossibility because he was so connected to the Cuba scheme and the Ostend Manifesto that had announced it.

In 1860, Belmont was a big supporter of Stephen Douglas‘ presidential run. Thanks to that, Belmont became the head of the Democratic National Committee and probably does deserve credit for turning that into a professional organization. Among other things, he and his ally Samuel Tilden bought the New York World to turn it into a pro-slavery, anti-Lincoln Democratic Party rag. Despite his wife’s relationship with her uncle John Slidell (soon to be notorious as he was one of the Confederate representatives to London arrested by the American Navy), Belmont did not support treason in defense of slavery and became a War Democrat, someone who opposed Lincoln but also was not willing to make peace with the slaveholding traitors. In fact, he used his international connections to encourage the Rothschilds and other big European trading firms to not do business with the Confederacy. On the other hand, he was personally accused of buying up Confederate bonds on behalf of the Rothschilds.

Belmont remained the head of the DNC until 1872, meaning that he was in charge of two incredibly disastrous elections. First, in 1868, there was the race-baiting white supremacist candidacy of Horatio Seymour, a campaign so ugly that only Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy rivals it in American history. Then there was the Democrats backing Horace Greeley in 1872, even though he was until recently a Republican. Because Greeley had so often bitterly attacked Democrats in the Civil War, many were opposed to this. Belmont himself had wanted another disaffected Republican, Charles Francis Adams, but he did not win out. In any case, with Grant blowing both Democrats out of the water, Belmont finally resigned after Greeley’s loss.

As Belmont aged and the Gilded Age set in, he became a major hard money backer and thus supported Delaware’s Thomas Bayard for the presidency in 1876. He was fine with Tilden though and was furious at Republicans for taking the presidency in 1876, though the only case Democrats had was that black voter suppression was OK and thus all those southern states they won were legitimate, which of course Belmont was completely fine with.

The other thing that Belmont became known for was his lavish lifestyle. He helped establish Newport as the center of the American rich, a playground for the true elite. He threw incredibly lavish parties and invested heavily in horse races. Among other things, the Belmont Stakes are named for him as he financed the race in its early years. His children were well-known for continuing in their father’s hard-partying ways, his Democratic politics, and his high finance. Belmont died in 1890.

August Belmont is buried in Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island.

If you would like this series to visit other 19th century capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. They are all peaches! Leland Stanford is in Palo Alto, California and Sanford Dole is in Honolulu. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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