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The Money Kings — the profound legacy of America’s Jewish banking dynasties



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Early in The Money Kings, Daniel Schulman writes that he questioned whether his new book risked adding to the tide of antisemitism that had appeared during the Trump era. Could an exploration of the profound influence of Jewish-American banking dynasties add to bigoted views of Jewish greed, and feed conspiracy theories about their supposed control of the world’s levers of power? 

Ultimately, Schulman decided the answer was no: in fact, telling their stories would help counter the lies and distortions that have obscured many of these family legacies. The result is a deeply reported and readable chronicle of a group of German-Jewish immigrants who arrived in the US in the 1800s and earned fortunes that lasted generations. Schulman vividly portrays their profound impact on Wall Street and the world — even if at times it feels that he stretches the premise that these men shaped modern America. 

Some of the names still resonate today: the Goldmans, the Lehmans, the Warburgs. Others, such as the Schiffs and Seligmans, have faded over time. With so many characters, the book could have done with a companion family tree similar to the one in Stephen Birmingham’s 1967 book “Our Crowd”: The Great Jewish Families of New York.

Still, Schulman keeps the story moving briskly, through a series of epochal events. Readers are carried through the US civil war and its aftermath, multiple financial panics in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Paul Warburg’s contribution in establishing the Federal Reserve in 1913, the first world war and the bitter antisemitism that followed in the US and Germany.

We follow the arrival in the mid-19th century of the first Jewish bankers, who started out as peddlers and went on to prosper financially on both sides of the civil war. Joseph Seligman sold Union securities while Mayer and Emanuel Lehman pushed Confederate debt and dabbled in the black market for southern cotton. After the civil war, the Lehman brothers secured pardons from president Andrew Johnson and their operations shifted from the south to New York, where they helped found the city’s cotton exchange.

Seligman started his journey to America in 1837 on a horse-drawn cart from a Bavarian farming town and went on to make a fortune as the founder of J & W Seligman & Co, which became famous for trading US government debt. He was an early leader of the American-Jewish community, which grew as many fled Europe following the revolutions of 1848 and 1849. 

In 1877, Seligman suffered a high-profile episode of antisemitism when the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs denied him and his family entry. A public dispute played out in the pages of The New York Times between Seligman and the hotel’s owner, Henry Hilton. 

The Goldman family, today the most renowned name on Wall Street, are supporting players here. Marcus Goldman and his heirs forged their reputation by peddling commercial paper and avoiding the sort of risk with which the firm would be synonymous more than a century later. In fact, that Marcus Goldman “would be the progenitor of the most powerful financial firm in modern history defied imagination”, Schulman writes. 

The author delves into the intrafamilial business conflicts and marriages that fused rival households together, though his book spends little time on the social scene between the various families — which was raked over in Birmingham’s “Our Crowd”. In Schulman’s book, the Jewish faith very much comes across as more of a cultural thing than a spiritual one: he writes how Jacob Schiff stressed to his family their religious duties but he himself still enjoyed lobster and bacon.

If there is a single protagonist in The Money Kings, it is Schiff, the man who stepped in to fill the leadership role in the Jewish community after Seligman’s death in 1880 and donated liberally to Jewish charities. Born in 1847, Schiff was a precocious and ambitious émigré from Frankfurt who co-founded his first brokerage on Wall Street in 1867. He then built a career at the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co.

Schiff rivalled John Pierpont Morgan’s standing on Wall Street — his reputation only enhanced when he orchestrated a rescue of Union Pacific Railroad in the late 1890s after Morgan had abandoned the assignment. On the world stage, Schiff was instrumental in raising money for Japan in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05, and lobbied for the rights of Jews in Russia, then under heavy oppression from the Tsar.  

1913 photo of New York dignatories on steps of civic building; one is holding a ceremonial shovel
Jacob Schiff, second right, beside New York mayor William Gaynor in 1913, as Gaynor is nominated for re-election © Bain News Service/Library of Congress

Schiff’s firm ultimately faded from public view, particularly after Kuhn Loeb merged with Lehman Brothers in 1977. Still, Schulman argues, “whether they knew it or not, the moguls who dominated Wall Street in the years after Schiff’s death [in 1920] walked in his shadow”. 

The Money Kings’ most poignant section comes towards the end as it explores the first world war’s aftermath and Hitler’s rise in Germany. Antisemitism was fuelled by conspiracy theories about Jewish influence over world affairs, and the community suffered an onslaught of attacks by publications backed by Henry Ford, the car magnate. Ford’s antisemitism seemed to stem from the belief that Jewish bankers benefiting from the first world war were secretly controlling the conflict.

With uncharacteristic restraint Schiff advised the American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group he co-founded, to adopt a passive approach to the attacks. Schiff argued that to engage with the smears would “light a fire, which no one can foretell how it will come extinguished”. As Schulman writes, it was a fatal misjudgment: “The fire was already lit — and it has never ceased blazing.” 

The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America by Daniel Schulman, Knopf, $35, 592 pages

Joshua Franklin is the FT’s US banking editor

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