US Senator, Confederate attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state. Born a British subject in the British West Indies on August 6,1811, Benjamin was taken to the United States in his early youth. The child of Sephardic Jewish settlers, he was descended from families that could be traced Back to fifteenth-century Spain.
Judah Benjamin’s boyhood was much more steeped in Jewish culture and tradition than either Southern or Jewish historians have acknowledged. He was reared in Charleston, South Carolina, and grew to manhood in New Orleans, two of the largest Jewish communities in the United States in the early nineteenth century. His father was one of the twelve dissenters in Charleston who formed the first Reform Congregation of America. Although the records of Beth Elohim congregation were burned and we cannot know for certain, he probably was one of the first boys confirmed at the new reform temple, which was founded when he was thirteen years old. The character of a Jewish boy reared by a deeply involved Jewish family would be shaped by that experience the rest of his life.
He went to Yale Law School at fourteen, left under mysterious circumstances, and was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1832. A strategic marriage to Natalie S. Martin, whose family belonged to the ruling creole aristocracy in New Orleans, propelled him into financial success and subsequently into a political career. He participated in the explosive growth of New Orleans between 1820 and 1840 as a commercial lawyer and political advocate for banking, finance, and railroad interests.
Benjamin prospered for a time as a sugar planter, helped organize the Illinois Central Railroad, and was elected to the Louisiana legislature in 1842. As a rising political star in the Whig Party, he was the first acknowledged Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate (1852; reelected as a Democrat, 1858). In the Senate he was noted as an eloquent defender of Southern interests and has been ranked by some historians as one of the five great orators in Senate history, the equal of Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun.
In Washington, he met Jefferson Davis (1853) and forged a friendship in an unusual confrontation. They were both intense and ambitious senators–Davis of Mississippi and Benjamin of Louisiana. Varina Howell Davis, the future First Lady of the Confederacy, wrote years later of them during this period, “Sometimes when they did not agree on, a measure, hot words in glacial, polite phrases passed between them.” Because of a suspected insult on the floor of the Senate Benjamin challenged Davis to a duel. Davis quickly and publicly apologized, and the incident of honor defended and satisfied drew them together in a relationship of mutual respect.
His wife had taken his only daughter, Ninnette, and moved to Paris in 1842. She joined him briefly after his election to the Senate, but returned again to Paris because of scandalous rumors about her in Washington. Thereafter Benjamin saw her once a year on trips to Paris. Only a fragment of a letter remains between them: “Speak nor to me of economy,” she wrote. “It is so fatiguing.”
In the Senate, Benjamin was embroiled in the political turmoil leading to the Civil War, and he was frequently attacked on the basis of his religious background. Once in a debate on slavery when Senator Ben Wade of Ohio accused Benjamin of being an “Israelite with Egyptian principles,” Benjamin is reported to have replied, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forest of Great Britain.” It was a rare reply. Usually, when newspapers, political enemies, and military leaders insulted him with stinging phrases of religious prejudice, he almost never answered, but simply retained what observers called “a perpetual smile.”
After secession, President Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin as his attorney general on February 21, 1861. The president chose him because, in Davis’s own words, Benjamin “had a very high reputation as a lawyer, and my acquaintance with him in the Senate had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and capacity for labor.” Since the office of attorney general was a civilian post, the leadership in the capital considered it of little consequence, but this did not deter Benjamin. He plunged into the cabinet policy debates on all aspects of the Confederacy and developed a reputation as one who loved details, complexity, and problem solving. He became the administrator to the president, called by observers “the Poo Bali” of the Confederate government At his first cabinet meeting, Secretary of War Leroy P. Walker said, “there was only one man there who had any sense, and that man was Benjamin.” During his tenure at the Justice Department, Benjamin became a strong advocate of cotton diplomacy (the policy of shipping cotton to Europe as barter for arms and supplies, and of denying cotton to countries that did not support the South).
Davis then appointed Benjamin acting secretary of war in September, making the appointment permanent on November 21. By appointing a brilliant administrator without military experience, Davis could thereby be his own secretary of war, a position he had held in the Franklin Pierce administration. But Benjamin was a failure because when the war went badly on the battlefield, the military turned on him as a scapegoat. Frustrated generals who could not attack the president publicly had a convenient target in his secretary of war. As the Union forces struck back, criticism of Benjamin mounted. He was not a military man, and his orders, though flowing from constant meetings with the president, were treated as originating from him and were resented in the field as interference and amateurism.
Benjamin had highly publicized quarrels with Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard and Gen. Thomas J. (“Stonewall”) Jackson. Beauregard called Benjamin in a letter to Davis “that functionary at his desk, who deems it a fit time to write lectures on law while the enemy is mustering at our front.” Jackson threatened to resign, writing Davis that “with such interference in my command, I cannot be expected to be of much service in the field.” Davis defended his “right hand,” as Varina described Benjamin, who was working twelve and fourteen hours a day with Davis and was being blamed by the military for carrying out the presidents orders.
Benjamin was berated by Northern generals as well. When Benjamin Butler, who commanded the forces that conquered New Orleans, issued a statement about the city, he said “the most effective supporters of the Confederacy have been . . . mostly Jews . . . who all deserve at the hands of the government what is due the Jew Benjamin.”
The anger against Benjamin came to a head after the fall of Roanoke Island in early February 1862. Benjamin had been under intense pressure from Gen. Henry A. Wise at Roanoke and Governor Henry T. Clark of North Carolina to send many more men and arms to the garrison there. He had resisted for reasons that would not be known until twenty-five years after the war, and he accepted the subsequent public condemnation in silence to protect his country. Roanoke was sacrificed because to have done otherwise would have revealed to the enemy just how desperate the South was.
At the dedication of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond in 1890, Col. Charles Marshall, an aide-de-camp on General Lees staff, read part of a letter from Benjamin, which revealed that President Davis had agreed to allow Benjamin to be publicly censured:
I consulted the President whether it was best for the country that I should submit to unmerited censure or reveal to a congressional Committee our poverty and my utter inability to supply the requisitions of General Wise, and thus run the risk that the fact should become known to some of the spies of the enemy, of whose activity we were well assured. It was thought best for the public service that I should suffer the blame in silence and a report of censure on me was accordingly made by the Committee of Congress.
When Benjamin resigned, Davis, as a reward for loyalty, promptly named him secretary of state.
On the subject of slavery, both Davis and Benjamin were “enlightened” Southerners whose attitudes were evolving. Most Jewish historians have understandably reacted with revulsion to the fact that Benjamin owned 140 slaves on a sugar plantation, and they have been unable to consider the question of his views on slavery with anything but embarrassed dismay. To comprehend Benjamin on this score, one must put him into context as a political figure against a backdrop of planter dogmatism and abolitionist fervor.
Such an exploration leads directly to an extraordinary episode of the war in which Benjamin played a central role: the effort to persuade Davis to issue a Confederate emancipation proclamation, which would promise slaves freedom in exchange for military service. That move, which began to take shape early in the war in the minds of military and political leaders but did not surface until 1864, is usually dismissed as a desperate gamble made at the end of the war to lure Britain into the fight. But as secretary of state, Benjamin’s obsession all along had been to draw England into the war. Slavery, however, was a stumbling block because England had abolished slavery in 1833. As the clouds of defeat gathered, Benjamin spoke before ten thousand people in Richmond, delivering a remarkable speech in favor of a Confederate offer to free slaves who would fight for the South. Although the idea of arming slaves as soldiers was supported by Lee, who needed more men in the field, the public and political reaction was fierce. Howell Cobb, the former governor of Georgia, wrote that “if slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong.” Nevertheless, the Confederate Congress passed a partial version of the measure on March 13, but by then it was too late. Richmond fell less than a month later.
Benjamin’s apparent change of personality after the war has puzzled historians. The utter secrecy and privacy of his later life is anomalous, given his earlier hunger for fame. No one can ever know, but certainly one key to understanding his silence after the war is his creation of a Confederate spy ring in Canada and the subsequent proclamation, conceived by the Unions secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, and issued by Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson, for the arrest of Davis and seven Canadian Confederate spies after the Lincoln assassination. History, by means of the trials of the conspirators and by exhaustive investigations, has absolved both Benjamin and Davis from any responsibility. But the psychological and emotional impact on Benjamin of the long period of hysteria that followed the assassination must have taken its toll, especially since Lincoln’s death fell on Good Friday and 2,500 sermons were given on Easter Sunday comparing Lincoln to a fallen Christ figure, as the nation acted out a passion play. There is no record of what Benjamin thought of the various published accusations against him.
If Benjamin’s role in history has been misjudged by historians and was minimized even by participants, much of the responsibility for that lies with Benjamin himself. He chose obscurity early in the war with the unwavering decision that he could best serve the South by serving Davis and remaining in the presidential shadow. For reasons that have puzzled historians, Benjamin burned his personal papers–some as be escaped from Richmond in 1865 and almost all of the rest just before he died–and be left only six scraps of paper at his death. One historian has called him a “virtual incendiary.”
Benjamin fled to England after the war and built a second career as a successful international lawyer. He was called to the bar (June 1866) after only five months residence and achieved enormous financial success in his new home country. In 1868, he wrote a classic treatise on commercial law in England (Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property) known even today to law students as “Benjamin on Sales.” In 1872, he became a queens counsel, practicing with wig and robes in the House of Lords and appearing in 136 major cases.
Although he had been known in the U.S. Senate as an outstanding orator, in England be gave no published speeches on the war. He left no articles, essays, or books about his role in the war or any other aspect of it. Indeed, he made only two public statements in nineteen years that concerned the war. The first was a three-paragraph letter to the Times of London in September 1865, just after he arrived in England, protesting the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis. The second was a short letter in 1883 contradicting the charge that millions of dollars in Confederate funds were left in European banks under his control. There were no letters defending strategy or admitting error; nor does history record any war-related conversations with students or scholars. He spent a few evenings at dinner with Davis when the ex-president visited London five times between 1868 and 1883. Otherwise, he avoided nostalgic encounters with friends from the South. It is one of the enduring mysteries that Benjamin chose to erase all ties to his previous life. In fact, he never even returned to the United States.
Late in life, he retired and moved to Paris to be with his family. Benjamin died on May 6,1884, and was buried in Pdre Lachaise cemetery in Paris under tbe name of “Philippe Benjamin” in the family plot of the Boursignac family, the in-laws of his daughter. Three grandchildren died in childhood and no direct descendants survived. In 1938, the Paris chapter of tbe Daughters of the Confederacy finally provided an inscription to identify the man in the almost anonymous grave:
JUDAH PHILIP BENJAMIN
BORN ST. THOMAS WEST INDIES AUGUST 6,1811
DIED IN PARIS MAY 6,1884
UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM LOUISIANA
ATTORNEY GENERAL, SECRETARY OF WAR AND
SECRETARY OF STATE OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES
OF AMERICA, QUEENS COUNSEL, LONDON
In life, as in death, he was elusive, vanishing behind his agreeableness, his cordiality, his perpetual smile. To blend into the culture–whether Southern or English–was bred into him, a matter of the Jewish Southerners instinct for survival. The public man celebrated on two continents sought a kind of invisibility, not unlike the private man nobody knew. Shunning his past, choosing an almost secret grave, with calculated concealment, he nearly succeeded in remaining hidden from history.
Since his death, Benjamin’s life has remained relatively unchallenged in the images that have come down through history. Although historians have routinely called him “the brains of the Confederacy,” they know relatively little about him. Many historians of the Civil War have referred to him as President Davis’s most loyal confidant, but Davis himself in his 1881 memoir of the Confederacy, referred to Benjamin in the most perfunctory fashion, mentioning his name only twice in the l,5OO-page, two-volume work. That is especially odd if, as Varina Davis testified in a letter written in 1889, Benjamin spent almost every day in the office with her husband and was a central figure in events.
Pierce Butler in 1907 and Robert Douthat Meade in 1943 wrote the two standard biographies of Benjamin in the first half of the twentieth century, pulling together the thousands of Civil War orders and letters to friends and family in England, France, New Orleans, Charleston, and elsewhere that he was unable to destroy after the war. Butler interviewed Benjamin’s contemporaries, including Varina Howell Davis. Meade spent twelve years traveling–researching diaries, memoirs, and papers and interviewing family members and friends. His hook revealed Benjamin to have been a gifted tactician with a philosophical nature and an urbane manner, a gourmet, an inveterate gambler, and a man whom women adored. Still, it acknowledged a paucity of material.
Meade and Butler also drew from the research of the spare beginnings of an unfinished biography by Francis Lawley, the Richmond and Washington correspondent of the London Times during the war, who became, according to Meade, “devoted to Benjamin, who doubtless helped to color his vivid dispatches with a sympathetic attitude toward the Confederacy.” Benjamin kept up a relationship with Lawley for the rest of his life, but only six pages survive of the biography Lawley planned, along with fewer than a dozen letters.
Meade and Butler were both Southern historians unfamiliar with American Jewish history. Judaism for them represented strange and unsteady territory that they, perhaps too deeply ingrained with the attitudes of their time, were not prepared to explore. Butler, in 1907, treated Jewishness as if it were an unpleasant component of his admiring portrait, one that he was reluctant but duty-bound to include briefly. He referred to Benjamin’s father as “that rara avis, an unsuccessful Jew” and described Benjamin in England as “this wonderful little Jew from America.” Meade, writing during that sensitive period of the rise of Nazi Germany just before World War II, was more circumspect, yet observed that “like so many of Jewish blood today, Benjamin tended to become cosmopolitan.” In the late 1930s, no Southern historian could convey the harshness of the anti-Semitism surrounding Benjamin without seeming prejudiced himself In a steady drumbeat of insults in Richmond, Confederate opponents would later refer to Benjamin as “Judas Iscariot Benjamin,” and, according to Mary Boykin Chesnut’s diary, “Mr. Davis’s pet Jew.” The Jewish aspect of Benjamin’s life and career was not fully examined until it was taken up in a 1988 biography, almost fifty years after the publication of Meades book.
Historians have pointed our ways in which Jews and Southerners were alike–stepchildren of an anguished history and yet different. Whereas the Jewish search for a homeland contrasted with the Southerners commitment to place, Southern defenders of the Confederacy often used Old Testament analogies in referring to themselves as “the chosen people” destined to survive and triumph against overwhelming odds. Benjamin is fascinating because of the extraordinary role he played in Southern history and the ways in which Jews and non-Jews reacted to him. He was the prototype of the contradictions in the Jewish Southerner and the stranger in the Confederate story, the Jew at the eye of the storm that was the Civil War.
Objectively, with so few Jews in the South at the time, it is astonishing that one should appear at the very center of Southern history. Benjamin himself avoided his Jewishness throughout his public career, though his enemies in the Southern press and in the halls of the Confederate Congress never let the South forget it. The virulence of the times required a symbolic figure as a catalyst for an ancient hostility and perhaps contributed to his intentional elusiveness. As Bertram Korn pointed out in American Jewry and the Civil War, the nation both North and South experienced “the greatest outpouring of Judeophobia in its history” during the Civil War, and Benjamin was a convenient target.
Benjamin achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the nineteenth century–perhaps even in all American history. Although he was a non practicing Jew, he never attempted to deny his faith and contemporary society treated him as Jewish. Benjamin thus must stand as a symbol of American democracy and its openness to religious minorities. In spite of the bigotry surrounding him, not only was he elected to the U.S. Senate and appointed to three high offices in the Confederacy, but he was also offered an appointment as the ambassador to Spain and a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The nineteenth-century emancipation of the Jews, which began in Europe after the French Revolution, was as great a shock to Jews as were the centuries of persecution that preceded it. Benjamin was the main beneficiary of that emancipation and its most visible symbol in America.
In the final years before the war, Benjamin was widely admired nationally in both Jewish and non Jewish communities for his prestige as a Southern leader and his eloquence as an orator. His election to the U.S. Senate was a watershed for American Jews. Because of the war, he became the first Jewish political figure to be projected into the national consciousness. Jews in the South were especially proud of his achievement because he validated their legitimacy as Southerners. A pivotal figure in American Jewish history, Benjamin broke down the barriers of prejudice to achieve high office. After him, it was more acceptable for Jews to be elected to office and to aspire to service in the councils of national power.