Works in Progress - Autumn 2017

Banking on America

Read an excerpt from a forthcoming book on the unlikely men who built Wall Street

By Daniel Schulman | September 5, 2017

Daniel Schulman’s forthcoming book, Money Kings: The Unlikely Men Who Built Wall Street and Unleashed the Modern Financial Age, describes the journeys of four German Jews who fled religious persecution in 19th-century Europe. Settling in New York City, together they pioneered the field of investment banking and helped the United States become a global economic power.

They had different names but a common story. By wagon or on foot, the young men departed the villages of Baden and Bavaria, Palatinate and Hesse, their possessions packed in steamer trunks or bundled in canvas sacks. They traveled for days or weeks, camping by the roadside at night until reaching the ports of Bremen, Hamburg, or Le Havre. There they boarded ships and descended into the clamor and claustrophobia of steerage class, where quarters were fetid, dank, and dark. Epidemics spread easily. When a passenger died, the others might whisper a prayer over the body, then heave it overboard. The voyage lasted 40, 50, 60 days, sometimes more, at the end of which the passengers would disembark in New York, or perhaps in Philadelphia. In America, they built businesses, sent for relatives, and started families, their lives forming anonymous threads in the tapestry of their new country. But a few of these wayworn émigrés went on to play a much larger part in their nation’s story.

Joseph Seligman was one of them.

The oldest of 11 children, eight of them boys, he came from Baiersdorf, a small Bavarian farming town set among the lush, rolling hills north of Nuremberg. The family lived above its small store in Baiersdorf’s Jewish quarter. By age 12, Joseph was already exhibiting entrepreneurial instincts. When not attending school or helping his mother around the store, he loitered on the outskirts of Baiersdorf, offering his services as a moneychanger—the various German states used separate currencies—to passing travelers.

At 14, he enrolled at the local university in nearby Erlangen, where he studied theology and medicine and demonstrated an impressive knack for languages—English, French, Hebrew, and Greek. The more he learned, the more disdainful he became of a German social order that shackled Jews with any number of exclusionary laws and confined them to poverty and permanent second-class status. At 16, he penned a treatise on the question of Jewish emancipation and, to the displeasure of university officials, went on to give a forceful speech on this topic, in which he wondered why “my people” were “treated with little more consideration than that shown a negro slave.”

Like thousands of other young and ambitious men of his generation, enthralled by secondhand stories of the possibilities that awaited industrious immigrants on the other side of the ocean, Joseph fixated on traveling to America. In July 1837, not yet 18, Joseph climbed into one of two horse-drawn carts filled with would-be émigrés for the two-week trip to the North Sea. Sewn into his trousers was the equivalent of $100. Upon reaching New York on September 24, he found conditions on land no less turbulent than those at sea. He stepped ashore into the financial panic of 1837, one of the worst economic crises the nation had experienced since its founding.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Comments powered by Disqus