||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Belmont, August, Sr. (December 8, 1813 – November 24,
August Belmont was born in Alzey, Germany, in 1813. At the age of 15, he
started working for the Rothschild banking firm as an office boy, but soon
advanced to the position of confidential clerk. In 1837, the Rothschilds sent
him to report on the stability of Cuba, but during a layover he decided to stay
in New York City. America was in the midst of a financial panic that year, yet
he opened a private bank, August Belmont and Company. It would have a
continuing close relationship to the Rothschild firm. Belmont was extremely
successful, prospering in diverse financial ventures and serving as the fiscal
agent for the federal government during the Mexican War (1846–1848).
In 1852, Belmont acted as James Buchanan’s presidential campaign manager in
the state of New York, and then donated liberally to the campaign of Franklin
Pierce, who had defeated Buchanan for the Democratic nomination. After Pierce’s
election, the new president rewarded Belmont with appointment as the U.S.
minister to the Netherlands. During his term (1853–1857), Belmont negotiated
trade and extradition treaties between the two countries and helped draft the
Ostend Manifesto (1854) that called for the annexation of Cuba by the United
States. He again supported Buchanan’s presidential aspirations in 1856. When
the President Buchanan ignored Belmont’s petition in 1857 to become U.S.
minister to Spain, Belmont resigned as the Dutch minister, returned to New York
City, and threw his support to Buchanan’s Democratic rival, Senator Stephen
When the Democratic Party split in 1860, Douglas chose Belmont to manage his
presidential campaign. The next year, he was selected to chair the Democratic
National Committee, a position he would hold for the next eleven years. During
the Civil War, he sided with the War Democrats in favor of the Union cause and
influenced European financiers, like the Rothschilds, to withhold financial
assistance from the Confederacy. In 1862, Belmont joined with other prominent
Democrats to purchase the New York World, and named Manton Marble, one of
his best friends, as the newspaper’s editor. They transformed the publication
into the leading voice of Democratic opinion until Marble retired in 1876. In
1864, Belmont helped secure the Democratic presidential nomination for General
George McClellan, and two years later resisted President Andrew Johnson’s
efforts to merge his National Union Party with the Democratic Party.
In 1868, Belmont’s candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination,
Chief Justice Salmon Chase, lost to Horatio Seymour because Chase’s support of
voting rights for black men alienated him from the Democratic mainstream. As
Belmont foretold, General Ulysses S. Grant trampled Seymour in the general
election. In late 1871, Belmont joined other prominent New York City Democrats
to cooperate with efforts to topple Boss Tweed and his cohorts, whose corruption
had finally resulted in indictments. After Tweed was forced to resign from
Tammany Hall in January 1872, Belmont was among the reform Democrats elected to
its council. Later that year, Belmont resigned as chairman of the Democratic
National Committee. Thereafter, he became less active in politics, although he
did work unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination of Senator Thomas Bayard
of Delaware in the next three presidential campaigns.
Belmont continued to be active in social affairs and financial endeavors,
becoming one of the richest men in America. He helped popularize horse racing
in the United States, establishing the Belmont Stakes race in 1867. He was an
avid art collector, a music lover who served as board president of the Academy
of Music (1878–1884), and a gourmand who hosted elaborate dinner parties. He
died in New York City on November 24, 1890.
Source consulted: Irving Katz, “Belmont, August,” American
National Biography (online).