Benjamin, Judah Philip

views updated


Judah Philip Benjamin was attorney general of the Confederate States of America under President Jefferson Davis. Though described by many as a brilliant, self-made man, he was also characterized as the "dark prince of the Confederacy" in Robert W. Service's poem "John Brown's Body."

Benjamin was born August 6, 1811, on St. Croix Island, in the British West Indies. His parents, Philip Benjamin and Rebecca de Mendes Benjamin, were Sephardic Jews who had immigrated to the West Indies from Spain. Hearing that Jews were tolerated and allowed to prosper in the U.S. Carolinas, the family moved to the United States in 1813, settling in Charleston, South Carolina. Young Benjamin attended the Fayetteville Academy, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and entered Yale in 1825 at the age of fourteen. He was the top student in his class when he was expelled in 1827. He was charged with stealing from a fellow student, but the allegations were never proved. Though Benjamin was not an observant Jew, historians acknowledge that anti-Semitism was probably at the heart of the charges and his dismissal from school.

Following his expulsion, Benjamin moved to New Orleans, where he clerked in a commercial house and studied law until he was admitted to the bar in 1832. (A commercial house of the early 1800s was usually involved in the financial transactions around the movement of goods, i.e., lending, bonding, insuring, fees for transport, rent for storage, and contracts of sales.) While studying, he supplemented his income by giving English lessons to the French Creole aristocracy. One of his pupils, Natalie St. Martin, became his wife in a Roman Catholic ceremony in 1833. Though his wife was extravagant and notoriously promiscuous, Benjamin indulged her. Many of his peers commented that Benjamin's

wealth could be attributed more to the demands of his wife than to his personal ambitions. For her, he acquired the Belle Chase sugar plantation and an elegant townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

His real estate purchases were made possible by a growing and successful law practice. By 1834 he had secured his place in the local legal community through a joint publishing venture with Thomas Slidell. Their Digest of the Reported Decisions of the Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans and of the Supreme Court of Louisiana was widely used. Benjamin's national reputation as a lawyer was established by his participation in a case involving the brig Creole. His brief—which reviewed the status of slavery under both international law and U.S. domestic law—was printed as a pamphlet and widely circulated. In this more liberal period of his life, he believed and argued that slavery was against the laws of humans and nature. He would later reverse his position.

"The nation which presents itself with an organized government and … institutions created by the free will of the citizens … [may] demand its right recognition."
—Judah Benjamin

Benjamin began his political career in 1842 when he was elected as the Whig candidate to the lower house of the Louisiana Legislature. He attended the Louisiana Constitutional Convention from 1844 to 1845. Benjamin's wife was not supportive of his interest in politics, or tolerant of his absences. In 1845, after eleven years of marriage, she moved to Paris. The couple rarely lived together again as husband and wife, but they never divorced—and Benjamin's lifelong devotion to his wife has been well documented.

After his wife's departure, Benjamin retreated to his plantation, from 1845 to 1848, and began to experiment with sugar chemistry and processing. Ultimately, he lost the plantation when a friend defaulted on a note that Benjamin had signed.

Despite his business reversals, Benjamin had "great dreams about the future development of American commerce" and found himself with a renewed commitment to political service. He shared a growing belief in the South that foreign commerce would strengthen the region and restore the balance of power lost by the compromise of 1850. In 1852 Benjamin ran as a whig party candidate for one of Louisiana's U.S. Senate seats.

His successful bid for office made him the nation's first Jewish U.S. senator. Also in 1852, Benjamin was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President millard fillmore. Preferring to take his seat in the Senate, Benjamin declined Fillmore's offer and thereby missed the opportunity to be the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. Benjamin also turned down an appointment as ambassador to Spain, in 1853. Mindful of the escalating national conflict between North and South, he wanted to stay in the United States. In 1854 he wrote, "[A] gulf … is already opened between the Northern and Southern Whigs….God knows what awaits us. The future looks full of gloom to me."

In 1856 Benjamin left the Whig party and joined the more conservative southern Democrats. He was reelected to the Senate and continued to serve Louisiana there until the Civil War. Following the election of abraham lincoln in 1860, Benjamin advised secession; he resigned his Senate seat when Louisiana voted to leave the Union.

Benjamin was named attorney general of the Confederate States of America in early 1861. He served as attorney general until November 21, 1861, when he became secretary of war. He inherited a war department that was disorganized and deeply in debt. Throughout 1862, the Confederacy suffered both human resource and equipment shortages, and severe casualties.

A plan by Benjamin to build troop strength by drafting slaves—with the promise of emancipation for service—was prepared and sent to the Confederate congress. Seeing the initiative as a threat to the principle of slavery, the congress failed to pass the measure. Benjamin was eventually charged with inefficiency, and a motion to remove him from his post was drafted.

President Davis, still confident in Benjamin's abilities, stepped in and appointed him secretary of state on March 18, 1862. Benjamin served in that capacity until the fall of the Confederacy, but he never fully regained his popularity with the Southern people. Viewed in a historical context, Benjamin's service and loyalty to the Confederacy are extraordinary and commendable—especially in light of the extreme anti-Semitism and hatred that pervaded the South throughout the war years.

After Robert E. Lee's surrender to ulysses s. grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, U.S. agents targeted Benjamin for capture because it was assumed, falsely, that he knew the location of large sums of money. After a brief stop in North Carolina, Benjamin headed south to Florida. Garbed as a Frenchman and speaking fluent French, he passed himself off as a journalist, Monsieur Bonfals (which translates as Mr. Good Disguise). Because Benjamin was too fat to ride a horse, he traveled by cart in the company

of a former Confederate officer from New Orleans who pretended to be his interpreter.

On May 1, 1865, federal agents increased their efforts to locate all Confederate fugitives, and the New York Times called for Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin, and Confederate secretary of war John C. Breckenridge to die "the most disgraceful death on the gallows." The price on Benjamin's head was $40,000, dead or alive. But by May, Benjamin had already made it to Tampa.

With the help of Confederate sympathizers and former Confederate soldiers, Benjamin traveled from Tampa to the Gamble Mansion on Florida's southwest coast. En route, he presented himself as Mr. Howard, a farmer and cattle buyer. With federal troops closing in, he was twice forced to hide in a canebrake near the mansion to avoid capture. Eventually, Benjamin was moved to Sarasota Bay, where he sailed down the coast to Knight's Key with Captain Frederick Tresca, a former blockade runner, and H. A. McLeod, an experienced sailor for hire. The trio reached Knight's Key on July 7, 1865. From there, Benjamin boarded a boat for Bimini, in the Bahamas. After this vessel was shipwrecked, he was rescued and returned to Florida, where he again faced capture by federal agents. Benjamin eventually reached Bimini, and then set sail for England. He arrived in England on August 30, 1865, after almost five months of dangerous and grueling travel.

Without funds, Benjamin made the necessary arrangements to practice law in England. He was admitted to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1866, and he was soon a respected member of the British bar. Most of his cases focused on corporate law. He also wrote about matters pertaining to business and corporate law. His Treatise on the Law and Sale of Personal Property: With Special Reference to the American Decisions and the French Code and Civil Law was published in 1868. Commonly known as Benjamin on Sales, the book was a definitive source on commercial matters on both sides of the Atlantic for the next twenty-five years. In 1872, Benjamin was selected Queen's Counsel. He practiced law in England until 1883, when he retired to France. He is credited with making major contributions to the British Empire's dominance of world trade in the last half of the nineteenth century.

Benjamin died May 6, 1884, in Paris. He was buried at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery under a headstone marked Philippe Benjamin.

further readings

"The Daring Escape of Judah P. Benjamin." 1982. Tampa Bay History 4, no. 1.

Detroit College of Law Review. 1991:1019.

"The Enigmatic Judah Benjamin." 1978. Midstream 24, no. 8.

Evans, Eli N., and Robert Weinberg. 1988. Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate. New York: Free Press.

"From Benjamin to Brandeis to Breyer: Is There a Jewish Seat?" 2002. Brandeis Law Journal 41 (winter): 229–36.

"Journey to Asylum." 1987. Civil War Times Illustrated 26, no. 8.

"Judah P. Benjamin's Loyalty to Jefferson Davis." 1966. Georgia Review 20, no. 3.

Law and Contemporary Problems. 55:107.

"Meeting Mr. Benjamin." 1986. Queen City Heritage 44, no. 3.

Naresh, Suman. 1996. "Judah Philip Benjamin at the English Bar." Tulane Law Review 70 (June): 2487–514.

Patrick, Rembert W. The Opinions of the Confederate Attorneys General, 1861–1865. Buffalo: Dennis.

"Some Legal and Political Views of Judah P. Benjamin. "1956. Historica Judaica (France) 18, no. 1.

"The Spectrum of Jewish Leadership in Ante-Bellum America." 1982. Journal of American Ethnic History 1, no. 2.

"The Three Lives of Judah P. Benjamin." 1967. History Today 17, no. 9.

"The Virginia Decision to Use Negro Soldiers in the Civil War, 1864–1865." 1975. Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 82, no. 1.

Judah Philip Benjamin

views updated

Judah Philip Benjamin

An American lawyer and statesman, Judah Philip Benjamin (1811-1884) served in the Cabinet of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis until the end of the Civil War.

Judah Benjamin was born a British subject on St. Thomas, British West Indies, Aug. 11, 1811. His parents moved to Wilmington, N.C., about 1813 and later to Charleston, S. C. Benjamin attended Yale College, where his student days were dogged with rumored scandal. He read law in New Orleans and was admitted to the bar in 1832. He and his friend John Slidell published a summary of decisions made by the territorial government and Supreme Court of Louisiana which became a standard legal guide. Benjamin devoted most of his attention to commercial law and became a widely admired practitioner. He once declined appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852, Benjamin strongly defended the South's position and was an acknowledged leader of the pro-Southern congressional faction. He resigned from the Senate in 1861 to become attorney general in the Confederate Cabinet. His brilliant legal mind made him invaluable to President Jefferson Davis, and as the bond of trust and friendship between the two deepened, Davis gave Benjamin increased responsibility. He called on him to serve as secretary of war for a brief time. But Benjamin earned Confederate congressional disapproval as secretary of war—various largely unavoidable military failures were fastened upon him—and many Southern lawmakers wanted the Jewish leader expelled from the government.

Davis yielded to pressure, yet defied it. After removing Benjamin from the war post, he appointed him secretary of state in 1862, and the choice was a wise one. Benjamin could not win foreign recognition of the Confederacy—the main goal of Confederate diplomacy; and he counseled President Davis too long in the ways of traditional negotiation. But when he realized that military reverses had cooled foreign ardor for Southern recognition, he persuaded President Davis to take a course of secondary diplomacy, which proved highly successful. Benjamin recognized that blockade-running was vital to sustaining Southern supplies, and he sent "commercial agents" to Bermuda, the West Indies, and Cuba to open ports to Confederate blockade-runners. The system, after mid-1863, was expanded and brought rich rewards to investors, shipowners, and the Confederate Army. In this area Benjamin performed his most valuable service to the South.

When the Confederacy collapsed, Benjamin escaped to England, where, bankrupt and without standing, he began a new career. Living a spartan and frugal life, he studied law and was called to the English bar in 1866. In 1872 he attained the distinguished position of queen's counsel and was recognized as one of the leaders of English law. His book, Law of Sale of Personal Property (1868), was long a standard in England and the United States.

A romantic but tragic marriage doomed Benjamin to much loneliness, since his wife chose to live most of the time in France. He died on May 6, 1884.

Further Reading

For information on Benjamin see Pierce Butler, Judah P. Benjamin (1907); Robert Douthat Meade, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman (1943); and Frank E. Vandiver, Their Tattered Flags (1970).

Additional Sources

Butler, Pierce, Judah P. Benjamin, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

Evans, Eli N., Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate, New York: Free Press, 1988.

Meade, Robert Douthat, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate statesman, New York: Arno Press, 1975. □

Benjamin, Judah Philip

views updated


BENJAMIN, JUDAH PHILIP (1811–1884), U.S. lawyer and statesman. Benjamin was undoubtedly the most prominent 19th-century American Jew. He was a noted lawyer, whose services were requested in connection with some of the most significant legal disputes of the time, a powerful politician who was a leader in the cause of Southern rights and on behalf of the short-lived Confederacy.

Born in St. Croix in the West Indies, of British parents, Benjamin was a British subject. His family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, while he was still a boy. He was at Yale University for two years, but studied law privately in New Orleans while earning a meager living as a tutor in English and as a clerk in a business establishment. Deprived of a happy home through an unsuccessful marriage to a non-Jewess, Natalie St. Martin, a high-spirited Creole who left him to live in Paris after their only child was born after ten barren years, he was free to devote himself to law and politics. His legal eminence brought him wealth, and his political activity fame. He was the first professing Jew to be elected to the United States Senate, as a Whig in 1852, and as a Democrat (after the Democratic Party espoused the cause of Southern rights) in 1856. He became a leading member of the school of Southern politicians which favored secession from the Union as the only safeguard for Southern survival and delivered a number of major addresses in the Senate defending slavery. When Louisiana seceded, he withdrew from the Senate, and was immediately called to the cabinet of the newly created Confederate government (March 1861) as attorney general. President Jefferson Davis relied heavily upon Benjamin's companionship and counsel and appointed him to the more important position of secretary of war in September 1861. Benjamin quickly succeeded in antagonizing Davis's high-strung generals with his complacent lawyerly manner and became a convenient scapegoat for a number of military disasters and chronic supply problems, causing him to resign in March 1862. Loyal to Benjamin despite antisemitic attacks, Davis promptly appointed him secretary of state, a position which he held until the collapse of the Confederacy. In this role Benjamin came close to obtaining recognition of and help for the Confederacy from England and France. But the Confederacy's cause was doomed from the first, and after Lee's surrender to Grant (April 1865) Benjamin was the only leading Confederate to choose permanent exile rather than live in the defeated South, convinced that as both a rebel and a Jew he had little future in America. He parted ways with the fleeing president in South Carolina and escaped to England through Florida and Nassau, and there made for himself a distinguished career as barrister (he was appointed Queen's Counsel), which in many ways outshadowed his prewar American legal career. Ill health forced his retirement from active work in 1882 and he died two years later in Paris where he had finally rejoined his wife and daughter.

Benjamin took no discernible interest in Jewish affairs, although he never denied his origin and was never converted to the Catholic faith of his wife. There is no record of membership on his part in any synagogue, nor did he ever give support to any Jewish cause or organization.


B.W. Korn, American Jewry and the Civil War (1951), index; idem, Eventful Years and Experiences: Studies in Nineteenth Century American Jewish History (1954); R. Douthat Meade, Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Statesman (1943). add. bibliography: E.N. Evans, Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (1988).

[Bertram Wallace Korn]

About this article

Judah Philip Benjamin

All Sources -
Updated About content Print Topic