Joseph Seligman (1819-1880)

Joseph Seligman, along with his brothers, founded J. & W. Seligman & Co., which became the premier investment banking house raising money for the Union government, repaying the national debt necessitated by the war, and channeling European funds into the construction of American railroads and other industries.

Updated: February 18, 2014


Joseph Seligman (born November 22, 1819, in Baiersdorf, Kingdom of Bavaria; died April 25, 1880, in New Orleans, LA) was the first of eleven children born to David and Fanny Seligman in Baiersdorf, a rural village in Bavaria. The Seligmans were a Jewish family and had few prospects for advancements without leaving their home village for larger cities like Munich, which they chose not to do. Instead, they grew their family in preparation for life in America. Joseph immigrated to the U.S., where he took advantage of family contacts in America and became a clerk for a successful businessman in rural Pennsylvania. After Joseph earned a salary for a year, he left his job and became a peddler, moving around the countryside, selling merchandise to people who had difficulty reaching stores. As he earned money, he sent some back to his parents, telling them to pay for the migration of additional brothers. They took Joseph’s advice and soon all his siblings arrived and went to work in the U.S., first as storekeepers and peddlers in the South and then as storekeepers and importers in the North. The brothers and brothers-in-law for the most part worked as a unit even when dispersed. The size of the family soon became a distinct advantage when Jesse Seligman (born August 11, 1827, in Baiersdorf, Kingdom of Bavaria; died April 23, 1894, in Coronado Beach, CA) moved to San Francisco with one of the other Seligman brothers to sell merchandise to the miners that flocked to the region following the discovery of gold.[1] At the same time, Joseph Seligman remained in New York, traveled to the German states on occasion, and became an importer of merchandise from Europe and gold from California. During the Civil War, Joseph established an international investment banking house with brothers situated eventually in London, Paris, and Frankfurt, and with correspondents elsewhere. J. & W. Seligman & Co. soon took its place as a premier investment banking house raising money for the Union government, repaying the national debt necessitated by the war, and channeling European funds into the construction of American railroads and other industries. Joseph and Jesse both died in their 60s, rather young when compared to their siblings, but they were the leaders of family firms and charitable causes that covered many parts of the globe, even if they did not always succeed in their efforts and even if they did not become completely free of restrictions based on their Jewish religious identity, restrictions that they had hoped to escape by immigrating to the U.S.[2] At the same time, they personified the definition of entrepreneurs as those capable of making judgments on the basis of incomplete information and trust.[3]

Family and Ethnic Background

When David and Fanny Seligman gave birth to their first child in Baiersdorf, a village in the province of Middle Franconia, the Seligman family had lived in the community for many years. Their lives in Bavaria, however, were in a state of flux. In fact, the provinces of Franconia, including Middle Franconia, had only recently become part of Bavaria. One has to go back to the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era at the turn of the nineteenth century to understand the geography and population of Bavaria. Long a decidedly Catholic state, with a smattering of Jewish enclaves, Bavaria experienced a change of government in 1799 and supported Napoleon in his wars against the Holy Roman Empire by contributing money and troops to fight on behalf of the French. A victorious Napoleon expressed his gratitude to the Elector of Bavaria, Maximilian Joseph, by ceding the Rhineland-Palatinate (Rhineland-Pfalz) to him, and giving him the title of Emperor Maximilian I.[4] Maximilian later changed his allegiance and turned against Napoleon before the latter’s 1812 defeat in Russia, thus securing still more population and territory for the emperor (who became king of Bavaria) as a reward. The Palatinate remained the southwestern border of Bavaria as confirmed by the victorious allies at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The addition of the Palatine and Franconian territories to Bavaria increased its Protestant and Jewish populations. Hoping to assimilate Jews into the general community, the king of Bavaria issued the Edict of 1813, which compelled Jews to surrender some of their historic personal freedoms in exchange for economic liberties. Jews had to take German surnames and modify institutions of self-government that previously had regulated their legal and religious status. However, while the population of Jews in Bavaria increased from about 3,000 in 1800 to 30,000 by 1813 and more than 50,000 by 1818, strict marriage restrictions continued to apply to Jewish families, which prevented many children from marrying and settling down in the communities in which they had been born and raised

Many Jews and other Bavarians chose to leave rural areas like Baiersdorf and move to the cities to establish themselves in commerce and trade.[5] David Seligman, father of the clan, and one of his brothers-in-law, operated an unsuccessful weaving business in Baiersdorf. His wife’s family owned a more successful rural store. The Seligmans’ dream was for their eldest child to become a professional and leave the community. They hoped that Joseph would take advantage of new freedoms and study medicine at nearby Erlangen University, however their growing family made those plans impossible. . By the time Fanny died in 1841 she had given birth to eleven children, all of whom survived and eventually left Baiersdorf for America.

Joseph received permission to emigrate in 1837. Using funds provided by his mother, he traveled up the Rhine River to Bremen where he boarded a steamer for New York City.[6] His destination, however, was a small town in Pennsylvania, where one of his relatives lived.[7] There, he took a job briefly as a clerk for a railroad executive for $400 per year.[8] However, instead of continuing as a clerk, a position offering steady employment and a secure future, Joseph preferred to work on his own as a peddler, aware of the economic opportunities that rural areas offered. Peddling had been a common Jewish occupation in Bavaria, one that Joseph would have witnessed firsthand at home, despite attempts by the Bavarian government to reduce the Jewish population’s dependence on such a “disdainful” occupation.[9] There were opportunities in America for selling goods and ample freedom of movement in the countryside. Joseph soon became a successful peddler and saved money, some of which he sent to his parents for their own upkeep and to arrange for more of his siblings to join him.[10] The next two brothers in age, William and James, arrived in the U.S. in 1839, at which point the three opened a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to furnish merchandise for peddling trips. James made a long trip to the southern states with a cartload of goods. He was so successful that the brothers, under Joseph’s direction, agreed to relocate to Alabama, where they opened the first of several stores in rural parts of the state. In each store an employee remained in charge while the four Seligman brothers went on the road to peddle among the plantations.

After the death of their mother, their father and the rest of the Seligman family (Babette, Leopold, Henry, Rosalie, Abraham, Isaac, and Sarah) left Baiersdorf and immigrated to New York City, arriving between 1842 and 1843.[11] The older Seligman brothers, who had been peddling in Alabama, grew more and more uncomfortable living and working within an economy based on slavery despite their financial success. Aware of the sectional strife increasing throughout the country, they moved in 1848, this time to New York City.

Business Development

Once in New York, Joseph opened a large clothing store to sell European imports. As the number of Seligman brothers in America increased, so did the geographical scope of their business. James Seligman came to New York City in 1846 from Alabama to attend his sister Babette’s wedding and establish J. [Joseph] Seligman and Brothers.[12]  Babette, born in Baiersdorf in 1821, two years after Joseph, had been the first sibling to marry. She married fellow German-Jew Max Stettheimer, and her husband and father-in-law joined the Seligman business network.[13] William Seligman went to St. Louis to open a store with Max Stettheimer in 1848. Seligman and Stettheimer’s business had a brief and unclear history. According to the firm’s records, Max Stettheimer did not particularly enjoy work in St. Louis and soon returned to the New York City store.[14]

Jesse and Henry Seligman continued north and opened a branch of the New York importing store in Watertown, New York, near a United States Army post on which lived a lieutenant named Ulysses S. Grant. Grant became a store customer and friend. Their meeting proved to be providential for both men, but Jesse did not stay long. He soon went to New York City to meet his brother Leopold, and from there they went to San Francisco following the discovery of gold in California.[15] Henry and Abraham stayed with the store in Watertown while Jesse opened a store in San Francisco to sell merchandise sent from New York.

California Gold

The various members of the Seligman clan moved about the country rapidly as political conditions changed during the late 1840s and 1850s. Their move out of the South coincided with the successful war against Mexico that ended in 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo of that year provided for a monetary payment by the United States in exchange for the land that composes some or all of the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado and Wyoming. After much debate in the state’s constitutional convention in 1849 and in the United States Senate, California came into the Union in 1850 as a free state, one in which slavery would be forbidden. The other acquisitions remained territories, with the status of slavery being left to future popular referendums.[16] 

The war brought several West Point graduates, including Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and William T. Sherman, to Mexico to fight and hone their military skills. Sherman later settled in San Francisco as a banker. Before a peace treaty between the U.S. and Mexico was signed, gold was found in California and the rush to the West began. Jesse Seligman left Watertown, New York, in 1850, following the discovery of gold.[17] The Seligman store in Watertown remained open under Henry’s direction until he and Abraham left for San Francisco in 1852. Jesse had already gone to New York City to meet his brother Leopold. The two of them bought $20,000 worth of merchandise (approx. $600,000 in 2011 dollars) through a loan from their parent firm to take to San Francisco with them. They intended to rent a fireproof building in the city because they remembered that a fire had damaged many wooden buildings in Watertown.[18] Jesse’s “Autobiography,” really a speech he gave in New York in 1891, a short time before his death, accurately describes the ocean voyage to San Francisco, which included an overland trek across the Isthmus of Panama, and includes an account of Leopold’s illness on the journey. Such travel hardships and uncertainties remained common until the completion of the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century. Transcontinental railroads alleviated some, but not all, of the difficulties.[19]

Jesse and his brother Leopold were by no means the first Jewish merchants to arrive in San Francisco, just as Joseph had not been the first to arrive in the Pennsylvania countryside. Prior to the Seligman brother’s arrival, more than fifty congregants had attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in a tent in the fall of 1849.[20] The brothers achieved rapid success in San Francisco because of their cohesion to the Jewish minority in the city and due to support from their brothers in New York who provided financial backing when necessary.[21] As would occur later in New York City, Jesse and his family expressed their devotion to German Reform Judaism in San Francisco by forming the city’s first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El.[22]

Jesse did not speak much of the political or economic situation in California upon his arrival in San Francisco, but conditions in the new state were far from stable. Once in San Francisco, he rented a brick building with a fireproof safe, both of which survived a May 1851 fire.[23] Many of the early fires of San Francisco appear to have been caused intentionally by thieves hoping to take advantage of the resulting chaos. There were serious fires every year between 1849 and 1854. The local fire departments did not have adequate supplies or water, and many of the city’s wooden buildings, including storefronts, were destroyed each year, only to be rebuilt within a few months. The 1851 fire was the worst the city had experienced to that point.[24] There was only a small amount of insurance available to the merchants affected by the fire, and these funds were soon exhausted. Bankruptcies from the effects of the 1851 fire continued for several years.[25] Jesse became an honorary member of his local fire department for having helped during the 1851 fire.[26] Following the conflagration, he sold his merchandise quickly and made a profit, but claimed he did not raise his prices to take advantage of the situation.[27]

Of greater consequence than his honorary fire department membership, Jesse joined and supported the “Vigilance Committee,” a volunteer group of two hundred formed in June 1851 to help maintain order in what was quickly becoming a town with a large group of people ready to rob and murder without fear of punishment.[28] Judicial and political authority was lacking in San Francisco’s early days for a number of reasons. The discovery of gold and the boom or bust lifestyle that followed attracted miners and merchants who hoped to get rich quickly and those who sought to prey on them. Similarly, the gold rush brought in all kinds of settlers from the eastern U.S., Latin America, Europe, and China, very few of whom expected to remain in California for long. Therefore, basic civil institutions were largely absent. In the year following June 1850, fifty-four murders were committed in San Francisco, none of which received judicial punishment.[29]

The weak political structure of a state only recently admitted to the Union with a growing and diverse metropolis did not end conflicts between pro and anti-slavery advocates or between those who were content to live in a lawless environment and settlers who wanted law and order. The first Vigilance Committee, with a substantial portion of merchants represented, managed to control crime in San Francisco for a short time by taking the law into its own hands and delivering justice, including hanging certain murderers after its own form of trial by jury. These actions raised serious questions about its legality, and the Committee abolished itself until the need arose for a second Vigilance Committee to deal with city corruption as well as crime in 1856.[30]

Family Business

With Jesse on the West Coast and Joseph in New York City, other events in addition to those related to their business success in America  took place for them and their siblings. Joseph had become the patron of a successful ethnic immigrant family in part because there were so many of them. There was a constant transatlantic flow of siblings and in-laws during the 1840’s and 1850’s, and Joseph kept in contact by necessity with Baiersdorf as he arranged for additional siblings to join those who had come earlier. He spoke fondly of his German homeland, but not as a place to which to return. He did go back to Baiersdorf in 1848, the year of revolutions in the German lands. He paid his father’s debts and met and married nineteen-year-old first cousin Babet Steinhardt.[31] A few years later, in 1853, the German Hebrew Benevolent Society in New York celebrated its tenth anniversary and Joseph, as society president, delivered the principal speech (in German). He warned of the failed revolutions and famine at home that would likely result in the arrival of additional German-Jewish immigrants to America. His audience pledged funds for the new immigrants and offered several toasts, one to the “German Fatherland,” hoping for prosperity for its people under free institutions; another to “Charity” that was the key to the Jewish religion; a third to the president of the United States; and finally to “religious liberty, the child of Education and Enlightenment”.[32]

Jesse Seligman also returned to Bavaria to buy inventory for the American stores and to find a wife. He was successful on both counts and in 1854 married Henriette Hellman from Munich. Like sister Babette’s in-laws, the Stettheimer family, Henriette’s brothers, Max and Theodore, came to America and began to work under the auspices of Joseph Seligman.[33] Max, and later Theodore, became partners in a brokerage firm established by Joseph Seligman immediately after the Civil War in New Orleans under the name Seligman, Hellman & Co. Until that time, the Hellman brothers trained and worked in San Francisco, and Theodore went on to marry Joseph’s daughter Frances (Fanny) in 1872.[34] The New Orleans firm bought and sold bills of exchange and notes generated by cotton transactions in the South during Reconstruction and remained open until 1880, the year after Reconstruction ended. Unlike the Lehman Brothers, who traded in cotton itself before and after the Civil War, the Seligman firm in the South was content to remain in the financing end of the business.[35]

When Jesse Seligman, accompanied by his new wife, returned to San Francisco in 1854, the social state of affairs in the city was no better than when he had left, to say the least, and on top of that the regional economy was in difficulty, in large part because of the very purchases Jesse and others had made while in Europe. The stores in town had amassed too much merchandise to sell, the miners were not doing well, and therefore retailers had to lower prices.[36] By early 1855 a severe depression hit San Francisco. Real estate values collapsed and many miners returned home from the gold fields or relocated to the city seeking other forms of employment.[37] The economy of California suffered throughout the decade of the 1850s, but the Seligman store in San Francisco survived because it had good credit in New York and could withstand the failure of so many San Francisco customers.[38] Luck was also on the side of the family. As Jesse stated in his recollections, he and Henriette were scheduled to return to New York in the fall of 1857 via Panama. The second leg of the journey from Panama to New York would have been on the SS Central America, but Jesse cancelled the trip so as to fulfill political and business obligations in San Francisco.[39] The SS Central America went down off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; more than 400 passengers died and an enormous amount of gold coins and bars meant for the New York Mint were lost.[40] The loss of life was tragic, as was the financial crisis that followed.

Outside of California, the nation’s economy was much more dynamic during the 1850s prior to the Panic of 1857.  The South prospered through exports of cotton and tobacco, solidifying many southerners’ belief that a regional economy based on slavery could continue to thrive as an independent nation. The atmosphere in New York, however, where the nation’s most important banks were located, was gloomier. Bankers could not cover their debts during the 1857 crisis and merchants and factories could not pay their workers and suppliers.[41] Joseph Seligman had heard rumors that led him to convert his assets to cash before the panic.[42] After the panic, Congress lowered tariffs so that more European imports could enter the country to satisfy America’s demand, which benefitted the Seligman’s business activities. The agricultural middle of the nation suffered the most, as did California. Gold was not reaching New York to help the bankers and merchants there, so Joseph had to go to the German lands after Jesse’s arrival at New York in search of funds to pay for their imports.[43]

By 1857 it had been twenty years since Joseph Seligman’s arrival in the United States. He was already a successful entrepreneur by any measure, incorporating into his network the numerous brothers and brothers-in-law who followed him across the Atlantic. Wholesale and retail clothing transactions were the basis of his success, augmented by profits in the sale of gold.[44] In 1860, at the suggestion of his brother William, Joseph bought a clothing factory in New York City to increase their business in San Francisco and New York. This step proved to be another fortunate one for the Seligmans, for when the Civil War began in the following year, they, like other manufacturers, were in a position to show their support for Lincoln by producing uniforms for Union troops. The family’s support for Lincoln and his Republican Party during the election of 1860 and the Union cause once the fighting started, propelled the Seligmans into government finance and ultimately into international banking.[45]

The Civil War

The outcome of the American Civil War was by no means a foregone conclusion, particularly in the early stages of the conflict. Initial public support in the North for Lincoln began to ebb because of Confederate victories in battle, particularly at the First Battle of Manassas in 1861. The northern Democratic Party opposed the fighting and advocated for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The Confederacy hoped to receive the support of England, the primary consumer of southern cotton, but the English government withheld its support because of strong abolitionist sentiments. In the end, England maintained a neutral position. The best the Confederacy could do was to arrange a loan floated in Europe by a banking group led by Emile Erlanger in Paris, giving receipts for stored cotton as collateral that raised more than $8,000,000 (approx. $185 million in 2011 dollars).[46]

In the North, textile factory owners who could not obtain cotton through Confederate connections produced what they could and scrounged for cotton supplies. Military suppliers such as the Seligmans received promissory notes, not cash, for their output, since the federal government did not have funds to support military provisioning. Joseph Seligman became concerned about the firm’s finances, fearing that the government might bankrupt them if payments were not forthcoming.[47] At times he also worried about a Confederate victory and the dissolution of the Union.[48] Thegovernment eventually managed to pay the Seligmans in 1861 and 1862 and the firm avoided suspension of payments to their creditors.

The question of nascent anti-Semitism on both sides of the conflict became a factor at the outset of the Civil War and continued until the end. It has been thoroughly discussed in recent scholarship and explained as a casualty of total war.[49] In the South tensions focused on Judah Benjamin, a Jewish member of the Confederate cabinet and principal advisor to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and on Abraham Myers, a Jewish merchant who at first had control of provisioning Confederate forces and organizing a railroad system to support Confederate troops.

Criticism of Jews as merchants in the illustrated journals began at the outset of the war even though there were in fact Jewish soldiers in both armies. A second outburst of anti-Semitism in the northern newspapers and journals occurred later in the war, after gold and stock speculations again drew attention to Jewish businessmen. Jews, in fact, served both sides as merchants and sutlers, those whose job it was to provide soldiers with clothing and equipment. There are no records of any member of the Seligman family going to the front lines as a soldier, but records show that the Seligmans supplied uniforms for Union troops and attempted to raise money for them in Europe. Two brothers, Jesse and James, paid to outfit substitutes in anticipation of the 1864 draft, which at the time was considered a patriotic act.[50]

The Seligmans did not seem to be affected by the most significant demonstration of anti-Semitism experienced during the War, which concerned General Orders No. 11 issued by General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of the Army of the Tennessee on December 17, 1862. The “Orders” excluded Jews “as a class” from the territory under his control, including northern Mississippi and western parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. Lincoln’s administration had decided that “trade should follow the flag” as Confederate territory was retaken, and as a result opportunities for cross-border smuggling were ample. The Orders (it was really one order) were meant to put an end to smuggling of gold, cotton, and other merchandise from one side of the border to the other. How General Grant came to single out Jews in an official act of anti-Semitism was a matter that continued to affect the relationship between Grant, the future president, and Jewish supporters of the Republican Party over the next two decades. The Orders were not long in effect, since President Lincoln revoked the proclamation as soon as he saw it. Slow communications between Grant’s headquarters and Washington and rapid mobilization by Jews prevented the Order from having few actual consequences. While in uniform, however, General Grant failed to explain or justify his behavior.[51]

Grant’s silence on the subject was reason for concern in the Jewish community and gave the Democratic Party arguments to use against their opponents. It took a last-minute declaration by Grant before the 1868 election, in which he stated he did not “condone” the Orders, to mollify voters. The bond between Grant and his Jewish supporters, predominantly well-to-do German Jewish immigrants like the Seligmans, remained strong during his two terms, so much so that by 1870 Grant and Jesse Seligman owned summer homes near each other in Long Branch, New Jersey.[52] The most likely reason for the Orders concerned a failed attempt by Jewish merchants from Cincinnati to join with Grant’s father to obtain a pass from his headquarters to allow the group to cross lines freely and engage in trade. Grant refused to waste his time and have his father involved. The most positive side to the matter, if there was any, was that the response from the American-Jewish community showed that for the first time Jews, predominantly of German origin, were willing to discuss openly the political consequences of a specifically Jewish matter.[53]

As the Civil War dragged on, the northern government desperately needed funds to continue the war and more military successes to convince the country and the world that they were capable of keeping the Union together. The banking community in New York did not speak with one voice, but the Seligmans remained loyal Republicans. Joseph and Jesse worked to help the federal government, but in different ways. When Lincoln appointed Grant to lead an army that would move aggressively against Confederate forces, outspoken Jesse Seligman immediately came to Grant’s support, recalling their days together in Watertown, New York. Joseph, for his part, visited Washington repeatedly to meet with government officials in support of the northern government’s effort to raise funds for its cause in Europe. He was ambivalent about his prospects for selling bonds in Europe. In 1862 he sold bonds authorized by Congress with his brother-in-law Max Stettheimer, who had moved to Frankfurt at Joseph’s suggestion, but not in any large amount. Joseph remained in the German lands and his brother Henry came from San Francisco to continue their effort to sell bonds in German cities and in Amsterdam the following year.[54]

The population of the German states was for the most part sympathetic to the Union cause and to the emancipation of slaves in the United States. The German immigrants themselves who had been arriving in America in increasing numbers before the Civil War divided their loyalties, usually depending on where they settled in America. The record of Jewish servicemen in the Confederacy is more complete than that for Union troops, showing the presence of German immigrants fighting for the South, but anecdotal evidence demonstrates there were more in the Union Army. The Union Army, of course, grew much larger during the course of the war.[55]

Joseph wanted the war to end so he could see a conclusion to the terrible bloodshed and financial waste in his adopted country and resume his plans for establishing an international banking network. Within hours of the announcement in 1864 by General Grant that he would pursue the Confederate Army to the end, Joseph announced the creation of J. & W. Seligman & Co. as merchant bankers with headquarters in New York and offices in London, Paris, Frankfurt and San Francisco. He went to London and founded Seligman Brothers under the direction of his youngest brother Isaac. The bank would go on to have correspondents in other European financial centers such as Amsterdam, where the Jewish bankers Alsberg, Goldberg & Co. became unofficial agents for the Seligman banking network. There were several established Jewish banking firms in Amsterdam who were eager to invest their clients’ funds in American railways, although results were not always satisfactory.

Joseph and Jesse Seligman almost certainly would have been successful entrepreneurs had they remained merchants trading in clothing and gold and other mercantile items. Their energy, however, knew hardly any limits. Joseph’s imagination envisioned an international banking firm to rival that of the Rothschild family. Jesse had comparable skills and imagination, and, as he was several years younger than his older brother, he had the good fortune to follow as family head after Joseph’s death in 1880. A foundation had been laid for him by Joseph’s tireless efforts. The ultimate success of the Seligman international banking firms cannot be overstated, but it did not happen all at once. Joseph had to negotiate with several secretaries of the Treasury Department before receiving approval to help put the government’s finances on solid ground. Funds from European investors were necessary because of the depleted resources at home. Bonds sold at home during the war wound up in European markets through the Seligmans and others who speculated on a northern victory. At war’s end, foreign direct investment from European commercial and investment banks amounted in 1870 to more than $1.3 billion (approx. $23 billion in 2011 dollars), of which $1 billion was invested in federal government bonds. State and local bonds then amounted to more than $300 million (approx. $5.3 billion in 2011 dollars). In contrast, by the 1880s foreign investments went almost exclusively into the construction and financing of American railroads.[56]

Although the Seligmans had good reason to think that they would be asked to offer United States bonds for sale in Europe, the United States Treasury Department at first chose the Rothschild interests, who had experience in government loans, to perform the task despite their lukewarm support for Lincoln during the war and their connections with August Belmont, chairman of the Democratic Party, Lincoln’s political opponents.[57] James Seligman had become a member of the New York Stock Exchange’s government bond department in 1869 for this purpose, but the reputation of the Seligman banking organization did not as yet justify its selection as a government agent. On two occasions, in 1871 and 1873, the Treasury Department sought to sell its bonds in Europe without the aid of the Seligmans, and in both cases the offerings did not raise sufficient capital. The year 1873, of course, was one of financial crisis and witnessed the collapse of Jay Cooke & Co., an important supporter of the North during the Civil War and a business associate of the Seligmans. Joseph Seligman noted early in 1874 that the previous year had been “one year’s labor without pay,” and he was happy not to have had to borrow money.[58] The government then took the position that the Rothschild and Seligman banks could work together to offer bonds in Europe to refund a large part of the national debt, but the Rothschild Bank in London did not want to share the business.

In the summer of 1874 Joseph finally persuaded the Treasury Department to recommend that the Seligmans cooperate with the Rothschilds, if only for twenty-eight percent of the loan, and the two bankers began to work together to offer bonds to European investors. When the government offered bonds with an economic rate of return, English and continental buyers were satisfied and bought United States bonds instead of their own, giving support to the credit of the United States.[59] The Rothschilds sold in London and the Seligmans offered bonds in New York. The government continued to retire paper money and eventually returned to the gold standard, as Joseph Seligman had advised in the first place. Debt was retired in 1876 and again in 1879, when a large syndicate of banks, including the above two, offered new bonds and refunded much of what remained outstanding at a lower interest rate. Isaac Seligman, manager of the Seligman Bank in London, then became a regular visitor to the Rothschild offices there, and in New York, J. & W. Seligman & Co. took its place among the large private investment banks raising funds in Europe for the United States government and to finance railroads and other industrial development, together with such names as J. P. Morgan & Co. and Kuhn, Loeb & Co.[60]

Banking in San Francisco

In the decade following 1857, the Seligmans maintained their profitable retail outlet in San Francisco but also increased their business as gold buyers in California dramatically. While the firm had purchased only $57,000 worth of gold toward the end of November 1857 (approx. $1.5 million in 2011 dollars), a year of panic in New York, ten years later the New York Times reported that on September 3, 1867, J. & W. Seligman & Co. was among the four largest buyers of a gold shipment worth $1,000,000 (approx. $15.7 million in 2011 dollars).[61]

Henry Seligman and his brother-in-law, Albert Levi, came to San Francisco to work with Jesse Seligman. Two other Seligman brothers also married into the Levi family.[62] Joseph’s brother-in-law, Ignatz Steinhardt, left Bavaria and moved to San Francisco to become a merchant. The prospect of banking appeared so attractive to Joseph, however, that he arranged for Albert Levi to buy the store’s inventory so that funds could be freed to establish a bank in San Francisco. Joseph and Jesse Seligman intended to enter a form of banking new to the family, the commercial banking business, selling shares to the public and taking deposits from customers. Their plan was to finance trade between California, New York, and London. On October 1, 1867 J. Seligman & Co. became bankers in San Francisco. The bank became a public one with shareholders when it incorporated in 1873 under British law as the Anglo-Californian Bank, Ltd. with offices in London and San Francisco. Its agent in New York was the New York office of J. & W. Seligman & Co. Isaac Seligman in London served as a director, as did Hugh McCulloch, a former U.S. treasury secretary and associate of Jay Cooke.[63] Ignatz Steinhardt and Joseph’s young son David were intended to be managers.

Civil War legislation had fostered what we would today refer to as public-private partnerships to encourage the building of transcontinental rail lines, the first of which was completed in 1869. The railroad, together with the 1861 transcontinental telegraph and the 1866 transatlantic cable, helped open the American West to economic development and linked it more tightly to broader international communication and financial networks. Before the Seligman’s West Coast bank opened for business, however, Joseph came to San Francisco to rearrange its structure. Joseph decided that his son David, at the age of twenty, was too young to help manage the bank, and so he replaced David with a relatively unknown associate, Richard Sneath. Sneath and Ignatz Steinhardt argued from the start, mostly about seniority, and while Sneath may have had a better command of the English language, he did not particularly like Jews as a group and attributed the bank’s early difficulties to its Jewish owners.[64] Joseph did not accept this explanation, but Sneath may not have been far from the truth. Sentiment against wealthy Jews was indeed increasing in the country during the 1870s. Perhaps Joseph hoped to give his San Francisco bank a more Anglo atmosphere. In any event, Sneath soon resigned, breaking his employment contract. Joseph then asked his brother Abraham to come to San Francisco from Germany to find a replacement for Sneath. Abraham did as asked and hired Frederick Low, a former governor of California, who remained a co-manager for many years.

There is also ample evidence that Philip Lilienthal, the son of a prominent Reform rabbi from Cincinnati, Max Lilienthal, who married Joseph’s daughter Bella shortly before Joseph died, was active in the Anglo-Californian Bank, Ltd. He was considered by some a founder of the bank and a long-time manager. The firm’s history, however, does not mention Lilienthal. He and his wife were also active in San Francisco’s Temple Israel.[65] Lilienthal died in an accident after the 1906 earthquake and fire, which among other things placed banking in the city in serious jeopardy.

The Anglo-Californian Bank had an interesting and somewhat successful history before the earthquake, although it began under the cloud of the global 1873 panic. It followed the practice of other banks by serving as a place for apprenticeships for the next generation of Seligmans (though not Lilienthal apparently). Jesse’s son Henry spent five years in San Francisco before returning to the New York firm about the time of Joseph’s death in 1880.[66] The bank also caught the eye of another firm of merchants interested in becoming bankers. Three years after the Seligmans changed their mercantile business in San Francisco into a bank, the Lazard brothers, merchants who had been operating in New Orleans since the 1850s, opened a banking agency in San Francisco under the name Lazard Freres, not yet an incorporated bank. With their home office removed to Paris, Lazard became a leader in the field of international exchange transactions and in 1884, several years after the Seligmans, opened a similar bank under British law to replace their agency, incorporated as the London, Paris and American Bank, Ltd. In 1888, just four years later, Lazard bought most of the outstanding shares of the Seligman bank, effectively gaining control.[67]

Railroads After the Civil War

After government financing, the principal activity for investment banks following the Civil War had to do with financing construction and overseeing mergers, bankruptcies, and reorganizations of the country’s unregulated railroad industry. The major source of the large amounts of money needed for the American railroad industry at first came from syndicates composed of European firms with American connections, including the Seligmans. During the Civil War, German and Dutch investors had sold their American railroad shares, bought through London banks, while awaiting the war’s outcome. Northern victory encouraged these banks and individuals to repurchase American railroad shares and pump funds into American railways, only to see many of the firms default during the 1873 panic.[68] The Seligmans’ interest in railroads and urban transport systems continued after Joseph’s death and through the years when Jesse was at the helm of the bank. Joseph bought and sold railroad securities as a broker in New York for domestic and international clients, and sometimes invested the firm’s own money, but it is not clear just how profitable the investments were for the firm.[69]

Joseph and other outside investors gradually learned to distinguish between speculative lines not yet in operation and those already earning revenue, but even profitable lines ran into difficulties in the decades following the Civil War. Because railroad funds came through New York, for the most part, while railroad management remained in other locations, financiers and managers often came into conflict. Joseph Seligman, like other investors, took seats on the boards of directors of railroads in which his firm had an interest. However, he had no knowledge of the day-to-day intricacies of running a railroad and was dependent on inside directors and managers for information when problems arose. Bankruptcies were common, and they were followed by reorganizations that required representatives of creditors from Europe and America to agree on a plan for preserving their capital investments, usually wiping out shareholders in favor of bondholders who had lent money to the bankrupt railroad line.

Joseph’s experience until shortly before the Panic of 1873, when railroad construction slowed for a while, was ambivalent. He wrote his brother William in Paris, who apparently had been worried about Joseph’s fascination with railroad securities, that the firm had made “a fortune these past 6 years & made it principally out of new R. Roads…” but he also wrote that he would be satisfied with a much smaller balance sheet of new railroad bonds. Joseph established close ties with a Jewish banking firm in Amsterdam, whose clients were eager to invest in American railroads but had little information.[70] Other bankers in New York, such as Kuhn, Loeb & Co., channeled money from German investors hoping to capitalize on the dynamic but unstable boom, but Joseph looked to Amsterdam, creating a relationship that continued through the rest of the nineteenth century.

Joseph did not give up his dreams of a southwestern route for a transcontinental railroad, but he did not live to see such a line in operation. He looked for investors for an Atlantic and Pacific Railway after the 1873 Panic and Depression, but was not successful and Joseph had to participate in a reorganization of the lines he had hoped to join for his putative Atlantic and Pacific line (which later became part of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad system). He became a director of the new line and a member of its executive committee. His efforts in this case were not for naught, as a town along the railroad in Missouri changed its name to Seligman shortly after Joseph‘s death. A few years later, a town in Arizona honored his brother Jesse with a similar name change.[71]

By the 1880s, the Seligman banking firm with headquarters in New York and branches throughout Europe were included among the major international financial firms engaged in development of the American railway system, a principal factor in the westward expansion of the United States.[72] As the firm’s official history demonstrates, the Seligmans invested in railways not simply to make money in their development but also to realize benefits from the development of land owned by those railroads. From the 1880s, the Seligmans in New York also became large ranchers in Arizona, completing the American cycle from bankers to railroad owners to land developers.[73] At the same time, Jesse Seligman became a principal organizer of syndicates to purchase and operate metropolitan transit companies in New York City.

Success and Exclusion

Much has been written about the relationship between Joseph and Jesse and Ulysses S. Grant during his time as president and after his terms in office. They did, in fact, work well together, receiving political plums for their brothers in Europe, among other things.[74] Joseph went so far as to order a railroad in which he had invested to lay its tracks through land owned by Grant, because Joseph told Grant he would do so.[75] Grant showed favoritism to Jews in public and private life, perhaps attempting to atone for his Military Orders during the war.[76] For example, he took the advice of a European rabbi when he called on the president to dispatch an honorary American consul to Bucharest to investigate charges of anti-Semitism and murder of Jews by the new Romanian government. Jesse collected funds for the consul, a native-born Jewish lawyer, and Joseph established the American Romanian Committee. In uncharacteristic language for the time, Grant wrote of the necessity to extend equality and human rights to all minorities everywhere. Successful entrepreneurs like the Seligmans committed themselves time and again to political and charitable issues for Jews and others.[77]

The American consul remained in Romania for more than five years and coordinated with leaders of western European Jewry and their governments. In particular, Gerson Bleichroder, Bismarck’s Jewish banker, sought with Bismarck’s help to impose on Romania’s new government a constitution calling for equal treatment for all its residents, including Jews. It was all, however, to no avail, and Romania became an independent kingdom in 1878 with a large Jewish population with rights only for the wealthiest Jews. As a case testing the power of international Jewry, including America’s German-Jewish bankers, pressure on the Romanian government did not bring about positive change. If anything, the publicity generated by the Romanian question helped revive notions among anti-Semites of an international Jewish “conspiracy” even though the efforts failed.[78]

While the years following the Civil War were prosperous ones for Joseph and his extended family, Joseph’s wholehearted embrace of his adopted country actually blinded him to changing circumstances for the German-Jewish entrepreneurial community in the United States. Joseph became a stereotypical “robber baron,” and a Jewish one at that. He did business with Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and other stock market manipulators. He must have thought that the political and social restrictions imposed on Jews by the Christian majority in the German states had been left far behind when he reached America. In many ways they were. But his success and that of many other German-Jewish immigrant banking entrepreneurs centered in New York, on top of Joseph’s flirtations with politicians in the federal government and New York City’s local government, made him stand out in the eyes of the public. As the nineteenth century progressed, the number of German-Jewish private banks in New York increased dramatically, and many family members within this group intermarried for social and business reasons, much like other minorities in the United States and around the world. These bankers, including Joseph and Jesse, built a new Reform Temple, Emanu-El, on Fifth Avenue as their chosen place of worship in 1868, further segregating themselves.[79] They transformed a German liturgy and adapted it with a rabbi from England to speak to the proud German audience in English. The building itself, modeled after traditional synagogues on the outside, contained interior settings that looked remarkably Christian. Joseph’s optimism and his enthusiasm for America, however, pushed him further to a Reform movement not based in Germany but rather in New York in the form of the Ethical Culture Movement that Joseph helped Felix Adler create. His brother Jesse, on the other hand, remained loyal to Temple Emanu-El for the rest of his life.

The year after Grant left office in 1876 following a contested presidential election between Tilden and Hayes, Joseph collided with what was then an unheard of experience of anti-Semitism when he and his family were denied entry into a famous resort in Saratoga Springs, New York, the Grand Union Hotel. He had brought his family there in the past, when the owner, Alexander Stewart, who also owned the largest department store in New York City, was alive. He and Joseph Seligman had been political rivals in the city’s government, but relations between the two of them were cordial. When Stewart died, however, the hotel’s ownership passed to his executor, Judge Henry Hilton. The judge decided that his Christian clientele did not like the presence of Jews at the Grand Union Hotel, probably after receiving complaints on the subject.

A harbinger of events that characterized the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the confrontation at Saratoga Springs did not go unnoticed. Joseph received the full support of the non-Jewish banking community in New York, as well as that of Henry Ward Beecher, who delivered a famous sermon on the subject. But the publicity surrounding the event was too great and drew too much general attention to the matter. Joseph’s reputation could only have been hurt under the circumstances. The incident was considered the first widely publicized case of anti-Semitism in the country (more noted than Grant’s wartime Orders) and received full press coverage. Stewart’s department store, also managed by Judge Hilton as executor, became the subject of a boycott and had to be sold. Upon further investigation, the conclusion reached by the popular news and opinion journals was that Judge Hilton had picked on the wrong family, but hotel owners on the New Jersey shore, near the summer homes of the Seligmans, and in the Adirondacks, were already beginning to make distinctions between the Seligmans and the “class” of wealthy Jews they represented and other non-affluent Jews. The owners of these resorts were concerned with their properties becoming known as “Jew houses” and began to exclude Jewish patrons. The question of antipathy toward Jews in a social, if not a business, environment continued to grow through the rest of the “long nineteenth century” (not ending until World War I), but Joseph himself had difficulty recognizing it. The dichotomy for non-Jews between doing business with Jews and socializing with them grew in importance; the Seligmans could finance government debt and railroad construction with Gentile bankers interested in these fields, but to mingle together otherwise was another matter. The German-Jewish bankers in New York preferred their own company anyway, with large families who intermarried to a remarkable degree and established their own schools and social structure. The Jewish elite in European capitals may have conferred honors at their weddings by selecting witnesses; in New York, marriage itself became the way to signify social and economic success.

Shortly after Joseph’s run in with Judge Hilton at the Grand Union Hotel, Joseph’s incessant hard work and determination, along with any disillusionment about supervising the family and entering American society wholeheartedly, took its toll on him. His health began to fail and in 1880 he went to Florida and then New Orleans for health reasons, a trip from which he did not return alive. He was able, however, to witness what was probably the crowning achievement of his banking career. The United States Treasury followed a proposal he had made to return the nation’s economy to the gold standard and was able to announce in January 1879 the refunding of the public debt. The Seligman firms in London and New York participated, along with the Rothschild firm in London, the Morgan firm in London, and August Belmont and Drexel, Morgan & Co. in New York, among others. Although considered a newcomer to the field of government finance, Joseph Seligman saw with his own eyes that he had accomplished what he had set out to do in the banking community.

Joseph Seligman died in 1880 at the end of a decade when Jewish political notoriety was supposedly at its highest throughout Western Europe and the United States. In 1881, however, the Russian Tsar was assassinated, and the problem of Jews in that country, numbering in the millions, became a much bigger one for the United States, as Russia encouraged its Jewish population to leave and for a time the United States was receptive. Jacob Schiff, who had become the principal German-Jewish banker in New York and an ardent foe of the Tsarist government because of its acquiescence in the pogroms that swept Russia following the assassination, joined with Jesse Seligman and Oscar Straus, who would later become the first Jewish Cabinet member, in efforts to permit immigration from Russia to continue without restrictions. In 1891, however, Congress decided to bar from entry those who were likely to become a public charge. Jesse hoped to influence the executive branch to interpret the law narrowly, and others in the German-Jewish community looked for ways to settle Jewish immigrants in areas other than New York City. There was, in fact, resentment in the more established Jewish community with German roots about the influx of Russian Jews, but it did not stop their efforts.

Jesse Seligman again used his political contacts to help his fellow Jews although his health was failing.[80] Toward the end of his life, however, he was to suffer an indignity of his own comparable to Joseph’s exclusion from the Grand Union Hotel. Jesse had long been a member of the Union League Club in New York, formed as a political organization to support Lincoln and the Republican Party during the Civil War. He had also been a vice president for many years when in April 1893 a small minority of the members voted to deny admission to Jesse’s son, Theodore, a well-known attorney in the city. The only objection stated by those opposed to him was his “race.” The younger members of the club wanted to transform what had been a political organization into a social club, and they made it clear during interviews following the vote that they claimed nothing personal against Theodore Seligman. The fact was that his father, Jesse, was at the time one of only two Jewish members in the Union League Club, and a number of Jewish men had been denied admission in the past few years on the stated ground that “Hebrews” were more content among their own. The investment banking community functioned freely in the United States for commercial matters, but society increasingly called for a religious divide in New York outside the business arena.

Jesse resigned from the Club, but he remained shaken by the experience. He died a year later while visiting California for health reasons. Those who attended his funeral included politicians, a large group from the Union League Club, and children from the Orphans’ Asylum to which he had devoted time and money. He left contributions to Jewish and non-sectarian charities. Speakers, both Jewish and Christian, extolled his virtues, and newspapers around the country made note of his passing.[81] Jacob Schiff referred to Jesse Seligman as the best example of a “Hebrew American.” The German ethnic entrepreneurs who came from the Jewish communities in Bavaria, Hesse, and elsewhere in the German lands during the nineteenth century could have asked for no more.


[1] Current research has been focusing on the increase in family size as a factor in the rise of the bourgeoisie during the nineteenth century. See Leonore Davidoff, Thicker Than Water, Siblings and their relationships 1780-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); C. Dallett Hemphill, Siblings, Brothers and sisters in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). German-Jewish immigrants during the period provide an excellent example.

[2] The large first generation of the Seligman family all married within the Jewish faith.

[3] Mark Casson has studied the theory and practice of entrepreneurship for many years, exploring examples of entrepreneurs in the process. See Mark Casson, in association with Peter J. Buckley, Ken Dark, Marina Della Giusta, Andrew Godley, Mohamed Azzim Gulamhussen, Teresa da Silva Lopes, and Nigel Wadesdon, Entrepreneurship: Theory, Networks, History (Cheltenham and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2010), passim. It is his definition that will be followed here.

[4] Richard Gottheil, A. Eckstein, A. Freimann, “Bayreuth,” Jewish Encyclopedia (accessed 11/4/2011); Gotthard Deutsch, A. Eckstein, “Baiersdorf,” Jewish Encyclopedia, (accessed 11/1/2011); Hasia Diner, The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 71, 81-82; David Sorkin, The Transformation of German Jewry 1780-1840 ( New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 80, 83. Sorkin's book is a good account of the circumstances relating to the increased migration from Germany to the United States in the wake of emancipation and globalization of the economy. Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine in 1806, (accessed 6/23/2012).

[5] Ross L. Muir & Carl J. White, Over The Long Term, (New York: Privately Printed, 1964), 31-32. This official published history of the Seligman Brothers has considerable detail and invaluable photographs, but is not complete and lacks an index and notes.

[6] It is not certain whether the funds came from the Seligmans or the Steinhardt family. See Peter R. Decker, Fortunes and Failures, White-Collar Mobility in Nineteenth- Century San Francisco (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 12-16, 114-118.

[7] It is virtually impossible to find the “first Jew” who came to America from the German states or neighboring Alsace. Someone always preceded him. Elliott Ashkenazi, The Business of Jews in Louisiana, 1840-1875 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1988), 5-7.

[8] The value of $400 dollars at the time has been calculated as about $9,700 in purchasing power in 2011 dollars. All conversion calculations were conducted via MeasuringWorth (accessed 7/1/2012) using the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

[9] The Edict of June 10, 1813, announced by the Bavarian government to bring emancipation to Jews, was the first of many decrees that addressed, but did little to remove, practical restrictions on Jews. “Bavaria,” Jewish Encyclopedia, (accessed 6/24/2012).

[10] Money sent home also supported the parents who stayed behind. Marion Kaplan, The Making of the Jewish Middle Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 83-84.

[11] Muir and White, Over The Long Term, 35-36.

[12] Ibid., 36.

[13] Stephen Birmingham, Our Crowd, Paperback ed. (New York: Syracuse University Press 1999), 42-43. Birmingham's account is the standard popular rendition of the German-Jewish community of nineteenth century New York, but there are no notes to document the many quotations from letters, some of which may still exist in private hands. There are important photographs and a theme that places the Seligman family squarely within the center of the “Crowd”. “Seligman,” Jewish Encyclopedia, (accessed 11/01/2011).

[14] Muir and White do not document their statements in Over The Long Term, so they are difficult to verify. Likewise, Birmingham, Our Crowd, 90-92, refers to letters and quotations describing a long conflict between Babette’s husband Max and Joseph Seligman while Max and Babette were in St. Louis but without documenting the letters, so the whereabouts of the letters remain a mystery.

[15]Autobiography,” In Memoriam Jesse Seligman (1894), donated by Theodore Seligman to Columbia University Library and made available to the public, (accessed 5/24/2012).

[16] Library of Congress, “Primary Documents in American History,” Compromise of 1850, (accessed 8/20/2012). The Compromise did not, in fact, give the country much time to heal its wounds.

[17] “Autobiography,” Jesse Seligman, In Memoriam.

[18] In 1850, the purchasing power of $20,000 would be more than $590,000 in 2011 dollars.

[19] Jesse’s speech includes the only statement by any of the family that their parents in Baiersdorf ran a successful weaving business, “Autobiography,” Jesse Seligman, In Memoriam. The others speak of a failed business, the more likely result.

[20] Fred Rosenbaum, Cosmopolitans. A Social & Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2009), 13.

[21] Decker, 12-15, 50.

[22] Ibid., 114. Henry Seligman was its president, Jesse loaned money for construction, William was a charter member and Abraham served as trustee. They also organized the Benevolent Societies along German-Jewish lines. The name of the Reform Temple in New York was the same, but not as old, (accessed 10/5/2012). There are photographs of the nineteenth-century building that housed the congregation until its destruction during the 1906 earthquake and fire at (accessed 11/19/13). The imposing building, which was built in 1867, looked like a Gothic cathedral with Moorish steeples.

[23] Others were not so fortunate. Some Jewish merchants, of whom there were many in San Francisco, were not able to repay their benefactors in the eastern part of the country. See Rosenbaum, Cosmopolitans, Ch. 1.

[24] See Frank Soule, Annals of San Francisco (Berkeley: Berkeley Hills Books, 1999), 344-346.

[25] New York Times, October 21, 1852; March 20, 1855; May 16, 1855.

[26] Jesse may not have known, or may have forgotten, that in 1851, the time of the most serious fire, the local fire departments served as political clubs in which various factions literally fought for control of city government. Against the Vigilantes: The Recollections of Dutch Charley Duane Edited, with an Introduction and Notes, by John Boessenecker (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).

[27] See Soule, Annals of San Francisco, 218-226, for a description of the city in 1849 and the political and economic troubles it experienced before Jesse Seligman’s arrival. Arthur Quinn, The Rivals (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 175-178, continues a tale of greedy merchants of all kinds into 1854.

[28] Soule, Annals of San Francisco, 574-587, lists J. Seligman as a member of the Vigilance Committee of 1851 and explains its history. The Committee’s charge was to order criminals to leave town and mete out additional punishment when necessary.

[29] Decker, Fortunes and Failures, 121. Mary Floyd Williams, Ph.D., History of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1921 Reprint), 157-159.

[30] “Autobiography,” Jesse Seligman, In Memoriam, 12-13. Jesse was also a member of the Committee of Twenty-One formed in 1856 to propose a slate of honest men for city office. Herbert Asbury, The Barbary Coast (New York: Knopf, 1933), 86-97. Between the creation of the 1851 and 1856 committees, Jesse found time to travel to Europe for business and matrimony, where he met and married Henriette Hellman before returning in 1854.

[31]Seligman,” Jewish Encyclopedia, (accessed 8/2/2013).

[32] New York Times, November 18, 1853. Both brothers had strong connections to the German Hebrew Benevolent Society and the older Hebrew Benevolent Society devoted to Jews in New York from around the world. The societies provided funds for Mt. Sinai Hospital and for an orphanage that trained its residents for work. While Joseph was president, the City of New York donated property to the society and gave the orphanage authorization. In 1870, for example, Vice President Jesse Seligman donated tools for typesetting and made weekly visits to the orphanage until his death, as did Emanuel Lehman. New York Times, February 3, 1895.

[33] Birmingham, Our Crowd, 97-98.

[34]Seligman”, Jewish Encyclopedia, (accessed 8/2/2013).

[35] See Elliott Ashkenazi, “Jewish Commercial Interests Between North and South: The Case of the Lehmans and the Seligmans”, American Jewish Archives (vol. 43, 1991): 24-39. While living in New Orleans, Theodore Hellman and his wife were active members of the Reform Jewish community there.

[36] Soule, The Annals of San Francisco, 519-520.

[37] Decker, Fortunes and Failures, 36-37.

[38] Ibid., 90-93.

[39] “Autobiography,” Jesse Seligman, In Memoriam.

[40] The lost treasure from the ship, consisting predominantly of new $20 gold pieces, was eventually found by divers off the coast of Cape Hatteras and made available commercially. See Gary Kinder, Ship of Gold In the Deep Blue Sea (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998). Also see “America’s Lost Treasure. The S.S. Central America,” (accessed 3/25/2012).

[41] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, Paperback ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 188-201.

[42] Muir and White, Over The Long Term, 43; America’s Story from America’s Library, “The Panic of 1857 Began,” “The War of Wealth,” 1895 (accessed 3/24/2012).

[43] Muir and White, Over The Long Term, 42-43.

[44] As the historian Barry Supple wrote: “Thus, by the late 1850s, the initial phase of economic integration was largely completed. Twenty years had witnessed the arrival of a generation of German Jews with little capital. Among them were men who, seeing their opportunity in the field of distribution, launched forth inland yet more hundreds of miles. Some stayed out in the West and the South and their children established permanent communities, but another cluster also emerged: men who, back in New York with capital and commercial experience, would ultimately participate to no small extent in the critical development of the American capital market in the decades after the Civil War.” Barry Supple, “A Business Elite: German-Jewish Financiers in Nineteenth-Century New York”, Harvard Business Review, 31:2 (1957): 143-178, here 154. The article contains essential genealogical, social and business information among this group of German-Jewish bankers

[45] Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (New York: Random House, 2010), 116-117, 463; Howard Jones, Blue & Gray Diplomacy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 273.

[46] Stephen R. Wise, Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988). The loan was never repaid, but did finance the Confederate vessels that were able to avoid the Union blockade of southern ports. Erlanger, who had already financed construction of railroads in the South, fell in love with, and then married, the daughter of John Slidell, the Confederate emissary to France who hoped to persuade the emperor to support the Confederacy. Jones, Blue & Gray Diplomacy, 304-305, discusses the speculative features of the loan.

[47] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 26-27.

[48] Ibid., 45, Birmingham, Our Crowd, 75.

[49] Gary L. Bunker and John J. Appel, “’Shoddy’ Antisemitism and the Civil War,” Jews and the Civil War, ed. Jonathan D. Sarna and Adam Mendelsohn (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 311-334.

[50] New York Times, September 4, 1864.

[51] Jonathan D. Sarna, When General Grant Expelled the Jews (New York: Schoken, 2012), discusses in detail Grant’s Orders and its consequences for future relations between the American Jewish community and Grant as president. The Orders itself is reproduced on page 7. Sarna's book is the definitive account of the relationship between General, afterwards President, Grant and the American Jewish community, of special importance because of the central role played by the Seligman family in that relationship.

[52] Sarna, General Grant, 77-78, 149-161.

[53] Ibid., 47.

[54] Muir and White, Over the Long Term, 27-30; Sarna, General Grant, 61-62. There is some confusion about the accuracy of the accounts given in the firm’s history, Over the Long Term, and in Linton Welles, The House of Seligman, (Unpublished, 3 volumes, 1933). The latter, without notes, is based on records no longer available. It is most likely that Birmingham, Our Crowd, 74-75, is correct when he states that the Seligmans were not able to help the Union much while in Europe until near the war’s end. Neither Foreman nor Jones discusses efforts by the Seligmans or others to raise money for the Union cause in Europe.

[55] Robert N. Rosen, “Jewish Confederates,” Jews and the Civil War, ed. Sarna and Mendelsohn, 227-251, here 238-239.

[56] Mira Wilkins, “Foreign Banks and Foreign Investment in the United States,” International Banking 1870-1914,  ed. Rondo Cameron and V. I. Bovykin (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 233-252, here 233-234.

[57] The London branch of the Rothschild bank assumed a neutral stance towards the combatants, reflecting the British government’s official position, while the Frankfurt branch gave its full support to the North. See Niall Ferguson, The World’s Banker. The History of the House of Rothschild (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), 628-630.

[58] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 71.

[59] Benjamin Chabot & Christopher J. Kurz, “That’s Where the Money Was: Foreign Bias and English Investment Abroad, 1866-1907” (2009): 1-35, here 1-6, Economic Growth Center, Yale University, (accessed 8/2/2013).

[60] Vincent P. Carosso and Richard Sylla, “U.S. Banks in International Finance,” International Banking, 48-71, here 55, 59; Wilkins, “Foreign Banks,235. Adler, 83-85, puts the issue of investment in government bonds and railways in its context. Because the author died before publication, the manuscript was edited for publication by Muriel Hidy, whose comments appear throughout the book and in an introduction. Adler’s research in primary sources and magazines and her analysis describe the international efforts of the Seligmans and other bankers who invested in American railroads.

[61] New York Times, September 6, 1867.

[62] Birmingham, Our Crowd, 8, 69,

[63] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 67-69.

[64] Ibid., 69.

[65] The short biography of Lilienthal is contained in Lewis Francis Byington, History of San Francisco, Vol. 2, (Chicago: Clarke Publishing Co. 1931), 160-162, (accessed 6/12/2012). See also Frances Dinkelspiel, Towers of Gold (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2008), 22-23, 56, 151, 179-181, 251-253. Lilienthal was at the head of the Anglo-Californian Bank when the earthquake and fire of 1906 destroyed San Francisco’s economy and buildings. Dinkelspiel is a descendant of Isaias Hellman, founder of Wells Fargo and other banks, who found a trove of her ancestors’ papers at the California Historical Society. Her book is based primarily on those papers.

[66] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 79.

[67] Ibid., 69. To complete the story, the Lazard Bank reincorporated under American banking laws in 1908, after the earthquake and fire of 1906, and consolidated the Anglo-Californian Bank into the new Anglo & London Paris National Bank of San Francisco. Joseph and Jesse had, in fact, been ahead of their time when opening a British bank in San Francisco.

[68] Adler, British Railway Investment in American Railways, 73-79. These investments were still overshadowed by the purchase of American government bonds.

[69] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 96-103. Joseph’s advice to a friend was to stay out of any railroad not yet built, but he did not follow his own recommendation.

[70] Augustus J. Veenendaal, a Dutch historian, aptly named his book on Dutch investors Slow Train to Paradise. How Dutch Investment Helped Build American Railroads (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996), 17, 22, 111, 252-254. When J. & W. Seligman & Co. offered railroad shares and bonds through their own European offices, they also included Alsberg, Goldberg & Co. in Amsterdam in the offerings. The Dutch investors often lost large sums and appeared on reorganization committees.

[71] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 103-107.

[72] Adler, 143-144.

[73] Muir & White, Over the Long Term, 107-111.

[74] Ibid., 76.

[75] Birmingham, Our Crowd, 112-113.

[76] Sarna, General Grant, 87. See also Isaac Seligman, Reminiscences(Privately Printed, 1926). Isaac Seligman was over 90 years old when he wrote this document, and his memory may not have been the best. Grant apparently offered Joseph the position of secretary of the Department of the Treasury, which he declined.

[77] Sarna, General Grant, 103-112.

[78] Fritz Stern, Iron and Gold (New York: Knopf, 1977), 351-366.

[79]History,” Temple Emanu-El, (accessed 8/2/2013).

[80] Naomi W. Cohen, Jacob H. Schiff, A Study in American Jewish Leadership (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1999), 120, 126-127.

[81] His son Theodore collected the notices and published them privately at Columbia University. In Memoriam Jesse Seligman (1895). They are now in the public domain.

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Joseph Seligman." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved February 24, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship:

Chicago Style

Ashkenazi, Elliott. "Joseph Seligman." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 2, edited by William J. Hausman. German Historical Institute. Last modified February 18, 2014.

MLA Style

"Joseph Seligman," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 24 Feb 2018 <>

Joseph Seligman Portrait, n.d

  • Jesse Seligman Portrait, 1894
  • The sinking of the S.S. Central America off the North Carolina