August Belmont

Flamboyant Banker Influenced Business and Politics in Gilded Age New York

Engraved portrait of Gilded Age banker August Belmont
August Belmont. Kean Collection/Getty Images

The banker and sportsman August Belmont was a prominent political and social figure in 19th century New York City. An immigrant who came to America to work for a prominent European banking family in the late 1830s, he attained wealth and influence and his lifestyle was emblematic of the Gilded Age.

Belmont arrived in New York while the city was still recovering from two disastrous events, the Great Fire of 1835 which destroyed the financial district, and the Panic of 1837, a depression which had rocked the entire American economy.

Setting himself up as a banker specializing in international trade, Belmont became prosperous within a few years. He also became very involved in civic affairs, and, after becoming an American citizen, took a great interest in politics at the national level.

After marrying the daughter of a prominent officer in the U.S. Navy, Belmont became known for entertaining at his mansion on lower Fifth Avenue.

In 1853 he was appointed to a diplomatic post in the Netherlands by President Franklin Pierce. After returning to America he became a powerful figure in the Democratic Party on the eve of the Civil War.

Though Belmont would never be elected to public office himself, and his political party generally remained out of power at the national level, he still exerted considerable influence.

Belmont was also known as a patron of the arts, and his intense interest in horse racing led to one of America's most famous races, the Belmont Stakes, being named in his honor.

Early Life of August Belmont

August Belmont was born in Germany on December 8, 1816. His family was Jewish, and his father was a landowner. At the age of 14, August took a job working as an office assistant in the House of Rothschild, Europe's most powerful bank.

Performing menial tasks at first, Belmont learned the rudiments of banking.

Eager to learn, he was promoted and sent to Italy to work at a branch of the Rothschild empire. While in Naples he spent time in museums and galleries and developed an enduring love of art.

In 1837, at the age of 20, Belmont was sent by the Rothschild firm to Cuba. When it became known that the United States had entered a severe financial crisis, Belmont traveled to New York City. A bank which handled Rothschild business in New York had failed in the Panic of 1837, and Belmont quickly set himself up to fill that void.

His new firm, August Belmont and Company, was established with virtually no capital beyond his association with the House of Rothschild. But that was enough. Within a few years he was prosperous in his adopted hometown. And he was determined to make his mark in America.

Society Figure

For his first few years in New York City, Belmont was something of rogue. He enjoyed late nights at the theater. And in 1841 he reportedly fought a duel and was wounded.

By the end of the 1840s Belmont's public image had changed. He came to be considered a respected Wall Street banker, and on November 7, 1849, he married Caroline Perry, the daughter of Commodore Matthew Perry, a prominent naval officer.

The wedding, held in a fashionable church in Manhattan, seemed to establish Belmont as a figure in New York society.

Belmont and his wife lived in a mansion on lower Fifth Avenue where they entertained lavishly. During the four years that Belmont was posted to the Netherlands as an American diplomat he collected paintings, which he brought back to New York. His mansion became known as something of an art museum.

By the late 1850s Belmont was exerting considerable influence on the Democratic Party. As the issue of slavery threatened to split the nation, he counseled compromise. Though he was opposed to slavery in principle, he was also offended by the abolition movement

Political Influence

Belmont chaired the Democratic National Convention held in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1860. The Democratic Party split afterward, and Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party candidate, won the election of 1860.

Belmont, in various letters written in 1860, pleaded with friends in the South to block the move toward secession.

When war came, Belmont supported the Union vigorously. And while he was not a supporter of the Lincoln administration, he and Lincoln did exchange letters during the Civil War. It is believed that Belmont used his influence with European banks to prevent investment in the Confederacy during the war.

Belmont continued to have some political involvement in the years following the Civil War, but with the Democratic Party generally out of power, his political influence waned. Yet he remained very active on the New York social scene and became a respected patron of the arts as well as a supporter of his favorite sport, horse racing.

The Belmont Stakes, one of the legs of thoroughbred racing's annual Triple Crown, is named for Belmont. He financed the race beginning in 1867.

Gilded Age Character

In the later decades of the 19th century Belmont became one of the characters who defined the Gilded Age in New York City. The opulence of his house, and the cost of his entertaining, were often the subject of gossip and mentions in newspapers.

Belmont was said to keep one of the finest wine cellars in America, and his art collection was considered noteworthy. In the Edith Wharton novel The Age of Innocence, which was later made into a film by Martin Scorsese, the character of Julius Beaufort was based on Belmont.

While attending a horse show at Madison Square Garden in November 1890 Belmont caught a cold which turned into pneumonia.

He died in his Fifth Avenue mansion on November 24, 1890. The next day the New York Times, New York Tribune, and New York World all reported his death as page one news.

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McNamara, Robert. "August Belmont." ThoughtCo, Nov. 21, 2016, thoughtco.com/august-belmont-1774024. McNamara, Robert. (2016, November 21). August Belmont. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/august-belmont-1774024 McNamara, Robert. "August Belmont." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/august-belmont-1774024 (accessed January 19, 2018).