Benjamin, Judah P.
Benjamin, Judah P. 1811-1884
Judah P. Benjamin, lawyer, U.S. senator, and Confederate official, was called “the dark prince of the Confederacy” and “the brains of the Confederacy.” Born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, a British subject, Benjamin achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the United States in the nineteenth century. His struggling Sephardic Jewish family settled in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1813. When Judah was fourteen, a wealthy Jewish merchant sponsored him at Yale University to study law. He mysteriously left after two years and in 1831 moved to New Orleans to begin his life as an apprenticed young lawyer. A strategic marriage to Natalie Martin, whose family belonged to the Catholic Creole aristocracy in New Orleans, and the 1834 publication of his book of reported Orleans and Louisiana Supreme Court decisions propelled him into financial success as an appellate lawyer, largely in commercial cases, and subsequently into a political career. But his wife humiliated Benjamin with her affairs and left him in 1845, in the midst of scandal, to move to Paris with their daughter.
In 1852 Benjamin was elected to the U.S. Senate. Before he was sworn in, he declined an offer from President Millard Fillmore for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. He was more interested in a political career. Soon Benjamin met Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), beginning a long friendship. With his reasoned and eloquent oratory, Benjamin became the most celebrated spokesman for the southern moderates. He was reluctant to leave the Union and favored compromise to head off war. He was quick to answer critics who attacked his religious background. “When my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity,” he said during a Senate debate on slavery, “the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain” (Kohler 1905, pp. 83–84). It was a rare reply. Usually when newspapers, political enemies, or military leaders ridiculed his Jewishness, he never answered but simply retained “a perpetual smile.”
After secession, Benjamin became attorney general of the Confederacy and Davis’s lieutenant and chief “implementer,” writing thousands of memoranda and orders and many speeches for the president. At times he seemed almost to be Davis and even was able to convene the cabinet and ask for a vote to give him constitutional authority to act in the president’s name, seeking presidential approval later. He was the only member of the cabinet without slaves, having sold his plantation with 140 slaves after his election to the Senate.
Soon promoted to secretary of war, Benjamin became the scapegoat when the war went badly and was bitterly attacked with anti-Semitic slurs—one newspaper referred to him as “Mr. Davis’s pet Jew” (Woodward 1981, p. 233)—and Confederate military officers groused publicly that he knew “as much about war as an Arab knows about the Sermon on the Mount” (Hunter 1905, p. 566). But Davis stood by him and made him secretary of state in 1862.
When the quick collapse of the Confederacy left Richmond in flames, Benjamin traveled south by train and then on horseback with the Confederate leadership. Soon he complained of saddle weariness and left Davis and his guard to escape in a broken-down horse and wagon, posing as a French doctor named “Monsieur Bonfals” (Cajun French for “a good disguise”). Sympathizers smuggled him to the Caribbean and then to London, as he fled the false accusation of involvement in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Especially after the publication of his 1868 treatise on mercantile law, quickly known as “Benjamin on Sales,” Benjamin developed a flourishing law practice in international trade. He served in the House of Lords as a queen’s counsel, becoming familiar with the leading figures in English cultural and political life. Benjamin never spoke publicly about the war again and ignored charges that the fortune he built in England resulted from his escape with the Confederate gold.
After more than thirty years apart from his wife, Benjamin finally joined her in Paris in 1883. Benjamin died there on May 6, 1884, and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery with the great figures in French history.
Benjamin was the main beneficiary of the nineteenth-century emancipation of the Jews and its most visible symbol in the United States. Though he was a nonpracticing Jew, he never attempted to deny his faith, and his contemporary society treated him as Jewish. His election to the Senate was a watershed for American Jews, and because of the Civil War, he became the first Jewish figure to be projected into the national consciousness.
Benjamin has fascinated historians because of the extraordinary role he played in southern history and the ways Jews and non-Jews reacted to him. He remains as he always was—the prototype of the contradiction of the Jewish southerner, a stranger in the Confederate story.
SEE ALSO Caribbean, The; Confederate States of America; Davis, Jefferson; Jews; Secession; Slavery; U.S. Civil War
Chestnut, Mary Boykin. 1905. A Diary from Dixie. New York: Appleton.
Evans, Eli N. 1973. The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. New York: Atheneum. Reissue with photographs, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.
Evans, Eli N. 1988. Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate. New York: Free Press.
Foote, Shelby. 1958–1974. The Civil War: A Narrative. 3 vols. New York: Random House.
Hunter, Alexander. 1905. Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. New York: Neale Publishing.
Kohler, Max J. 1905. Judah P. Benjamin: Statesman and Jurist. Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, no. 12. Baltimore, MD: Lord Baltimore Press.
Korn, Bertram.  2001. American Jewry and the Civil War. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Meade, Robert D. 1943. Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Reznikoff, Charles, and Uriah Engleman. 1950. The Jews of Charleston. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
Woodward, C. Vann, ed. 1981. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Eli N. Evans