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August Belmont (1816-1890)The group of New York Democrats with whom August Belmont was associated was called the "Silk Stockings." Their nicknamed suggested the power, wealth and influence they possessed, but not the confidence that Belmont had in his acceptance. "Even when he had been chairman of the Democratic National Committee, August [Belmont] had felt like an outsider," wrote biographer David Black.1 But as a millionaire with the best connections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Belmont had more influence than most outsiders. Belmont was a committed Democrat at a time when it was not easy to be one. Biographer Irving Katz wrote: "Belmont's identification with the loyal opposition during the war years; his struggle to patch up party dissension and broaden its base after the war when the Democratic label was equally burdensome; his tentative consideration of a merger with the National Union movement; his initiation of a dialogue with the Liberal Republicans which culminated in a coalition candidate and platform; his all-out effort to turn a popular mandate into an electoral majority after the 1876 election all these were cogent decisions consonant with his dedication to the continuing existence of a Democratic entity."2
Most of Belmont's life concerned money making it for himself and others and raising it for Democratic candidates. When he first met August Belmont, New York attorney George Templeton Strong thought that August Belmont was "quite disposed to be pleasant and free from any offensive millionaire-isms."3 Although Belmont was a gracious and cultivated man with many interests, it was money with which most New Yorkers associated.
"He wore side whiskers, owned ponies and enjoyed horse races, collected rare porcelains and masterpieces of painting. And Belmont had anger and courage, for in 1841 he had fought, because of a woman, a duel at Elkton, Indiana, with William Hayward of South Carolina, took a bullet wound and thereafter walked through life with a limp," wrote Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg. "The New York financier "helped raise and equip the first regiment of German troops enlisted in New York City. As a Union may through the war he had run somewhat the course of Governor Seymour of New York."4
Belmont was "sensitive to the ferment around him, but generally speaking what concerned him were the practical effects of disunion, not the moral and humanitarian aspects of human slavery. As a consequence, Belmont found the 'dangerous' implications of southern secessionist oratory and the 'irrepressible conflict ideas of New York Republican Senator William H. Seward equally upsetting. The banker felt the nation's stability could best be maintained by convincing the South that most northerners were hostile to the tenets of abolitionism," wrote biographer Irving Katz.5
August Belmont was born in Germany in 1813 of relatively prosperous Jewish parents. As a teenager of 15, he went to work for the Rothschilds in Frankfurt, quickly becoming a travelling secretary for one of the firm's partners exposing him to art as well as business throughout Europe. In 1837 in the midst of a U.S. financial panic, he was sent by the Rothschilds to Havana to represent their interests. He stopped in New York and stayed on to salvage the Rothschilds' interests there becoming their American agent and starting the firm of August Belmont and Company. In the process, August Belmont became an Episcopalian and a very wealthy man.
From 1844 to 1850 he also served as American Consul General of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the early 1850s, Louisiana Senator John Slidell recruited Belmont to help advance the presidential interests of Pennsylvania's James Buchanan in New York. When Buchanan lost the Democratic nomination to Franklin Pierce, Belmont worked for the election of Pierce. Hoping to be rewarded with a diplomatic post, Belmont advanced ideas for the annexation of Cuba through negotiation with the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Belmont was named instead, however, to represent the United States in the Netherlands. From that post, he maneuvered to produce the Ostend Manifesto signed by the American Ministers in Paris, London and Madrid that signalled a purported American intention to take over Cuba.
James Buchanan's subsequent election in 1856 raised Belmont's hopes for a posting to Madrid. Instead, he was offered only a renewal of his posting to the Hague. He declined, ostensibly for reasons of his wife's health, and returned to the U.S. When the Madrid post opened up again, he lobbied John Slidell to help him get it. When Buchanan declined to send Belmont to Spain where he could continue his Cuba scheming, Belmont severed relations with both Slidell and Buchanan and joined the political camp of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Like Douglas, Belmont was more concerned with Union than slavery and specially anxious to reconcile the South with the North.
Because Belmont favored Douglas for President in 1860 and the Mozart Hall faction of the New York party headed by Fernando Wood did not, Belmont became identified with the Tammany Hall faction and became the leader of the Douglas faction at the Charleston convention in 1860. After the Baltimore Convention, Douglas requested Belmont be selected to represent New York State on the Democratic National Committee; Belmont was immediately named its chairman and served in that position for the next four years presiding over the selection of four Democratic presidential nominees. Belmont, nicknamed the "Douglas National Chairman," urged Douglas to eschew tradition and campaign on his own behalf. He also sought to create fusion slates of Bell-Douglas-Breckinridge slates in the North. In a Cooper Institute address in October 1860, Belmont charged the Republican Party with "holding principles incompatible with the sacred obligations of the Constitution and arrayed in open and unrelenting hostility against the property and the institutions of the fair portions of our common country."6
One of Belmont's primary responsibilities was fund-raising. Historian Allan Nevins wrote: "Of unmistakable significance were the difficulties which the Douglas organization encountered in raising funds. Belmont, impaneling a weighty committee and making an initial gift of a thousand dollars himself, hoped for a generous response in New York. Yet despite urgent entreaties, the steamship magnate George Law flatly declined to contribute and the New York Central men who in Belmont's opinion could well afford to pay $100,000 to help gain the State were almost equally indifferent. Important merchants were fearful lest they offend Southern customers by supporting Douglas."7
With Douglas' defeat, Belmont concentrated on promoting compromise and averting a collapse of the Union. Historian David M. Potter wrote that "August Belmont urged peaceable separation, because he believed that it would give free play for a Unionist reaction which would result in an 'early reconstruction.'"8 But with the surrender of Fort Sumter, Belmont switched to active support of the Union. His role grew in importance with the death of Douglas in June 1861 and in the absence of other strong Democratic leaders to assume Douglas' leadership role.
The New York leader reached out to Secretary of State Seward via Thurlow Weed to offer his diplomatic advice, information, perspective and assistance. He also supported the sale of Union bonds and discouraged the European-based Rothschilds from financing the Confederacy. Although related by marriage to Confederate diplomat John Slidell, he himself helped Union cause with European connections. He was particularly helpful with his British and French contacts and made a tour of Europe in late summer and fall of 1861. According to biographer David Black, "August had been insinuating his counsel into the White House, advising the President on economic strategy. The President had responded positively to August's advances, and August was tempted to extend the range of his advice."9
According to historian Allan Nevins, Belmont "wrote [William H.]Seward from Paris in the fall of 1861 that Napoleon wished to recognize the Confederacy at once. He was so assured both in London and Paris. Thus Napoleon would stop the derangement of industry and trade caused by the war, made doubly disastrous by the total failure of French grain crops. But British cooperation was essential, and the British hung back. 'The fact is,' Belmont noted, 'the feeling between the English and French people is at the moment anything but friendly, whatever efforts their governments may make."10
The ill health of Belmont's wife forced him to remain in Europe until the spring of 1862. Belmont wrote President Lincoln from Paris on May 9 about the attitude of European leaders and the advisability of reopening the cotton trade with Europe:
You received me with such kind consideration, when I had the honor to wait upon you last July that I feel emboldened to take the liberty of addressing you this confidential communication & suggestions.
Once back in New York City, August Belmont resumed his letters to Republican boss Thurlow Weed with advice aimed at President Lincoln. According to biographer Black: "August assumed Weed would show his letter to Lincoln. Little by little August had been insinuating his counsel into the White House, advising the President on economic strategy. The President had responded positively to August's advances, and August was tempted to extend the range of his advice."12 Belmont wrote Weed on July 20, 1862 after General George B. McClellan's Peninsula Campaign broke down:
Our National affairs are in a most critical position, more so than they have been at any time since the beginning of this unfortunate war
Belmont concluded his letter: "Before we enter upon a new phase in this terrible war, which must carry with it horrors & misery far greater than what we have witnessed yet, I cannot but think that patriotism & humanity alike call for an earnest effort towards reconciliation & peace.14 Replying to the plea for North-South negotiation from a Mississippi planter, President Lincoln questioned whether Southerners knew that "Broken eggs cannot be mended; but Louisiana has nothing to do now but to take her place in the Union as it was, barring the already broken eggs. The sooner she does so, the smaller will be the amount past mending."15 President Lincoln wrote:
You send to Mr. W[eed] an extract from a letter written at New Orleans the 9th instant, which is shown to me. You do not give the writer's name; but plainly he is a man of ability and probably of some note. He says: 'The time has arrived when Mr. Lincoln must take a decisive course. Trying to please everybody, he will satisfy nobody. A vacillating policy in matters of importance is the very worst. Now is the time, if ever, for honest men, who love their country to rally to its support. Why will not the North say officially that it wishes for the restoration of the Union as it was?'
Belmont responded to President Lincoln with a long letter on August 10 in which he persisted in pursuing some kind of negotiated settlement with the South.
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of your esteemed favor. The contents bear the stamp of that statesmanship & patriotism, which I know to have guided all your actions in all the trials, which this wicked rebellion has brought upon this once so happy country.
On September 4, Belmont wrote President Lincoln to share negative correspondence from Europe and to urge the reinstatement of General George B. McClellan as head of the army: "The people are ready to bring every sacrifice for the restoration of the Union, but right or wrong they have lost confidence in the head of the War department. They have seen the fearful results of the intermeddling of civilians in military affairs & they want to see an experienced soldier at the helm."18
Although he was anxious to help President Lincoln in Europe, Belmont was also anxious to help the Democrats win the elections of 1862. He did this in part through part-ownership of the New York World edited by colleague Manton Marble. After Democrats won the governorship in 1862, Belmont organized the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge to disseminate propaganda against Emancipation and the Lincoln Administration. "In addition, in his capacity as Democratic Party national chairman, Belmont began growing the cashiered General George McClellan to challenge Lincoln in 1864," wrote historians Edward G. Burrows and Mike Wallace. "After being fired, McClellan moved to New York City and began working with Chairman Belmont on building a presidential candidacy. He took with him as his aide Lieutenant George Armstrong Custer, who now received his first introduction to the financial, political and journalistic elite of the metropolis."19
McClellan was not the only candidate whom Belmont considered for the Democratic nomination.. "To oppose the President, Belmont thought seriously, at one time or another, of Secretary Chase, Governor Seymour, James Guthrie, and General Nathaniel P. Banks and George B. McClellan," wrote biographer Irving Katz. Ironically two of those Chase and Banks were Republicans although both were former Democrats. In 1862, Belmont began a campaign to recruit, nominate and elect George B. McClellan as the Democratic candidate for President. "On January 12, 1864, Belmont held a national committee meeting at his Fifth Avenue home, the first since the summer of 1860. Most of the twenty-three members attended, only the weather accounted for the absence of some westerners," wrote Katz.20 Belmont sided with those committee members who wanted a late Democratic national convention in July.
John Waugh wrote in Reelecting Lincoln: "Belmont opened the meeting and told his colleagues that the Democratic congressional delegation in Washington, at his request, had wired a preference for the time and place of the party's nominating convention. They had picked Cincinnati in May. Several committeemen, including Belmont, objected. Too early, they argued. If anything was working for the party it was time, the more of it the better time to let further defeats on the battlefield, heavier taxes, and Lincoln's conscription policies take their toll on the Republican incumbent. So the committeemen fixed on July 4 for the convention instead of May, a late date for a convention, but full of pregnant meaning. They also overruled the congressmen on place, choosing Chicago over Cincinnati, a tribute to [the late Stephen] Douglas."21
The Democratic convention was subsequently postponed until late August in order to take maximum advantage of the whatever political situation the battlefield situation created. Belmont sought to unite the Democratic Party but ended up nominating a pro-war candidate with an anti-war platform making the lives of Democrats generally and Belmont specifically very difficult. Belmont backed the Democratic campaign generously with donations and with his own wagers. He was oblivious to the contradictions of his own political position hoping for a restoration of the South to the status quo ante in a nation that had irreversibly changed.
But it was not just the Democratic peace plank and Democratic presidential candidate that came under attack. The New York Times attacked the Democratic National Chairman viciously: "Let us look at a few undeniable facts...The notorious undenied leader of the Democratic Party at Chicago was the agent of the Rothschilds. Yes, the great Democratic Party has fallen so low that it has to seek a leader in the agent of foreign Jew bankers."22 But, according to biographer Black, Belmont's problems extended beyond anti-Semitic Republicans:
"The Democrats, having thrown away their chance to regain the White House in 1864, now seemed ready to throw away their national chairman too. August was attacked by Peace Democrats as having been too prowar; he had fought against nominating [George H.] Pendleton as vice-president and had influenced McClellan to make a statement toning down the party platform. And if that were not enough, August was also attacked by the War Democrats as having been too conciliatory toward the South. A rumor, noted by [George Templeton] Strong, was circulating that McClellan had 'allowed Barlow and Belmont to strike out of his letter of acceptance a vigorous sentence declaring an armistice with armed rebels out of the question.23
Belmont served both as a strategist and a fund-raiser for the campaign. According to biographer Black: "August worked some minor magic and recruited Democrats representing a wide spectrum of party opinion onto a Central Executive Campaign Committee. August supplemented the committee's fund-raising efforts by contributing additional money when and where needed: $500 for Ohio, $10,000 for Maine, and a rumored $15,000 for New Hampshire."24
On Election Day, New York attorney George Templeton Strong stood for two hours in a line to vote: "A little before me was Belmont, whose vote was challenged on the ground that he had betted on the election. The inspector rejected it unwillingly, and Belmont went off in a rage. Very few men would have been challenged on that ground, but this foreign money-dealer has made himself uncommonly odious, and the bystanders, mostly of the Union persuasion, chucked over his discomfiture..."25
With McClellan's defeat and retirement of politics, political leadership in the Democratic Party once more reverted to Belmont. But he continued to be the butt of conspiracy rumors including one that Belmont had been behind Mr. Lincoln's assassination. "Many people believed that he had led the conspiracy, and this belief forever after shadowed him and affected how he was viewed in public and private life. To some he was a hero, the defender of the Republic; to others he was a traitor," wrote biographer Black.26 In 1870, Belmont privately published A Few Letters and Speeches of the Late Civil War in order to vindicate his patriotism and demonstrate his support of the Union cause. Belmont died in 1890 and played an active role in presidential politics through 1880.
Belmont had a more lasting impact on thoroughbred horse races that Democratic political races. The final race in the "Triple Crown" is held at the Belmont racetrack in New York City. August Belmont's Long Island thoroughbred farm is now a New York State park.
Samuel L. M. Barlow
Stephen Douglas (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
George B. McClellan
George B. McClellan (Mr. Lincoln's White House)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln and Friends)
Thurlow Weed (Mr. Lincoln's White House)