Judah P. Benjamin

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Judah P. Benjamin
Judah Benjamin.jpg
3rd Confederate States Secretary of State
In office
March 18, 1862 – May 10, 1865
PresidentJefferson Davis
Preceded byRobert M.T. Hunter
Succeeded byOffice abolished
2nd Confederate States Secretary of War
In office
September 17, 1861 – March 24, 1862
PresidentJefferson Davis
Preceded byLeroy Pope Walker
Succeeded byGeorge W. Randolph
1st Confederate States Attorney General
In office
February 25, 1861 – September 17, 1861
PresidentJefferson Davis
Preceded byOffice instituted
Succeeded byThomas Bragg
Personal details
Born(1811-08-06)August 6, 1811
Christiansted, Saint Croix, West Indies
DiedMay 6, 1884(1884-05-06) (aged 72)
Paris, France
Political partyDemocratic
Spouse(s)Natalie St. Martin
ProfessionPolitician, Lawyer

Judah Philip Benjamin (August 6, 1811May 6, 1884) was an American politician and lawyer. He was born a British subject in the West Indies, became a citizen of the United States and then the Confederate States of America. After the collapse of the Confederacy, he settled in England and died in France.

Benjamin held the following posts:

He was also a distinguished barrister and Queen's Counsel in the United Kingdom. He was the first Jewish Cabinet-member in a North American government, and the first Jewish nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court (he declined the position). He was the second Jewish U.S. Senator (after David Levy Yulee of Florida).

Family and early life

Judah Philip Benjamin was born a British subject in Saint Thomas, during the British occupation of the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands), to Phillip Benjamin, an English Jew, and his wife, Rebecca Mendes, a Portuguese Jew.[1] He emigrated with his parents to the U.S. several years later and grew up in North and South Carolina. In 1824, his father was one of the founders of the first Reform congregation in the United States, the "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit" in Charleston. He attended Fayetteville Academy in North Carolina, and at the age of fourteen he entered Yale Law School, though he left without a degree. In 1832 he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he continued his study of law, was admitted into the bar that same year, and entered private practice as a commercial lawyer.

In 1833 Benjamin made a strategic marriage to Natalie St. Martin, of a prominent New Orleans Creole family. He became a slave owner and established a sugar plantation in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. Plantation and legal practice both prospered. In 1842, his only child, Ninette, was born and in 1847 Natalie took the girl and moved to Paris, where she remained for most of the rest of her life. Benjamin did, however, make a trip each summer to France to see his wife and child.[2]

In 1842, he was elected to the lower house of the Louisiana State Legislature as a Whig, and in 1845 he served as a member of the state Constitutional Convention. In 1850 he sold his plantation and its 150 slaves.


By 1852, Benjamin's reputation as an eloquent speaker and subtle legal mind was sufficient to win him selection by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. The outgoing President, Millard Fillmore of the Whig Party, offered to nominate him to fill a Supreme Court vacancy after the Senate Democrats had defeated Fillmore's other nominees for that post, and the New York Times reported (on February 15, 1853) that "if the President nominates Benjamin, the Democrats are determined to confirm him." However, Benjamin declined to be nominated. He took office as a Senator on March 4, 1853. During his first year as a Senator, he challenged another young Senator, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, to a duel over a perceived insult on the Senate floor; Davis apologized, and the two began a close friendship.

He quickly gained a reputation as a great orator. In 1854 Franklin Pierce offered him nomination to a seat on the Supreme Court, which he again declined. He was a noted advocate of the interests of the South, and his most famous exchange on the Senate floor was related to his religion and the issue of slavery: abolitionist and future Radical Republican Benjamin Wade of Ohio accused him of being an "Israelite in Egyptian clothing." (This is a reference to how Judah P. Benjamin's Israelite ancestors were held as slaves prior to the Exodus by the Ancient Egyptians yet Benjamin had himself been a slaveowner a mere four years previous thereby becoming that which those people whom he claimed as his ancestors fought against.) The future Confederate replied that, "It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain."[3]

He was again selected to serve as Senator for the term beginning in 1859, but this time as a Democrat. During the 34th through 36th Congresses he was chairman of the Committee on Private Land Claims. Benjamin resigned his seat on February 4, 1861, after the secession of Louisiana from the Union.

Proud Confederate

Davis appointed Benjamin to be the first Attorney General of the Confederacy on February 25, 1861, remarking later that he chose him because he "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." Benjamin has been often referred to as "the Brains of the Confederacy."

In September 1861, he became the acting Secretary of War, and in November he was confirmed in the post. He became a lightning-rod for popular discontent with the Confederacy's military situation, and quarrelled with the Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson. This came to a head over the loss of Roanoke Island to the Union "without a fight" in February 1862.

Roanoke's commander, Brig. Gen. Henry A. Wise was in desperate need of reinforcements when he was informed of the imminent Federal attack. He begged for the 13,000 idle men under the control of Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger in nearby Norfolk, Va, but his pleas to Huger and secretary of war Benjamin went unheeded. The heavily outnumbered Confederate force of some 2,500 surrendered and were taken prisoner after losing nearly a hundred of their number - which was incorrectly presented in the South as their having "surrendered without a shot being fired" (See Battle of Roanoke Island).

Judah Philip Benjamin

Cries of indignation and anger were heard throughout the South. Rather than publicly reveal the pressing shortage of military manpower that had led to the decision not to defend Roanoke, Benjamin accepted Congressional censure for the action without protest and resigned. As a reward for his loyalty, Davis appointed him Secretary of State in March 1862.

Benjamin's foremost goal as Secretary of State was to draw the United Kingdom into the war on the side of the Confederacy. In 1864, as the South's military position became increasingly desperate, he came to publicly advocate a plan whereby any slave willing to bear arms for the Confederacy would be emancipated and inducted into the military; this would have the dual effect of removing the greatest obstacle in British public opinion to an alliance with the Confederacy, and would also ease the shortage of soldiers that was crippling the South's military efforts. With Davis' approval, Benjamin proclaimed, "Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks, 'Go and fight - you are free". Robert E. Lee came to be a proponent of the scheme as well, but it faced stiff opposition from traditionalists, and was not passed until March, 1865, by which time it was too late to salvage the Southern cause.

He is pictured on the CSA $2.00 bill.


After Robert E. Lee's surrender, Judah P. Benjamin fled south with Jefferson Davis and the rest of his cabinet, but he left the group shortly before they reached Washington, Georgia, where the last meeting of the Confederate Cabinet was held.[4] He is reported to have stayed in Ocala, Florida, with Solomon Benjamin, a relative,[5] before continuing on south to Gamble Mansion in Ellenton, Florida. From there, assisted by William Whitaker and others, he was able to escape by boat to the Bahamas and then to England.[6] His escape from Florida to England, though, was not without hardship. The small sponge-carrying vessel on which he left Bimini bound for Nassau, exploded on the way and he and the three Negro crewmen had to be rescued by a British warship. His ship from the Bahamas to England caught fire on the way but managed to make it to port.[7]


In the immediate aftermath of the end of the war, Benjamin was rumoured to have masterminded the assassination of Abraham Lincoln through his intelligence apparatus (based out of Montreal, Canada: John Wilkes Booth was purportedly seen several times meeting with Confederate representatives and receiving funds from them). Fearing that he could never receive a fair trial in the atmosphere of the time, he burnt his papers, took refuge at Gamble Plantation in Florida and then fled to England under a false name. Some historians believe that he may have briefly considered joining his brother, Joseph, and Colin J. McRae, the former Confederate Financial Agent in Europe, at New Richmond, British Honduras, in the Confederate settlements in British Honduras.

In June 1866, he was called to the bar in England, the beginning of a successful and lucrative second career as a barrister. In 1868, he published his Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, which came to be regarded as one of the classics of its field. The work's current edition remains authoritative under the name Benjamin's Sale of Goods. In 1872 he became Queen's Counsel. He died in Paris on May 6, 1884, and was interred at Père Lachaise cemetery under the name of Philippe Benjamin.

Wall of reticence

Benjamin's parents have been described as nomads, "moving from place to place, leaving but faint traces of themselves. Young Judah grew up with a 'wall of reticence' about his antecedents."[8] In his adult life, Benjamin continued to build this "wall of reticence" by deliberately destroying records and papers that might have been used to reconstruct the story of his life.[8]

Appearance in fiction

In that Benjamin's diplomacy could have allowed for a CSA victory, he sometimes appears in alternate history stories though not always in a flattering light.

Judah P. Benjamin is a major character in "Gray Victory" by Robert Skimin, taking place in an alternate 1866 where the Confederacy won its independence. In the book, a half caste woman who is a member of a secret abolitionist underground has an affair with Benjamin and eventually assassinates him.

Benjamin, along with other historical figures, is also a character in Harry Turtledove's 1992 alternate history novel The Guns of the South. He also appears in Timeline-191 a series that chronicles a world in which the South won the Civil War. Here it won due to France and Britain's siding with the South as the real Benjamin hoped it would. Ironically, from "our" perspective at least, the Confederacy Judah P. Benjamin created becomes an analog for Nazi Germany by the 1940s that unleashes a Black holocaust complete with gas chambers. The Nazi Party analog, the Freedom Party, has as its Hitler's right hand man an anti Black Jew named Saul Goldman, an analog for Joseph Goebbels

In the 2004 mockumentary C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America it is Benjamin's getting France and Britain to side with the Confederacy which allows for the South to win the Civil War. Decades later, the CSA seeks to officially make itself a Christian country, villain James Fauntroy boasts of getting rid of the Jews. In the present, fictional historian Sherman Hoyle grows serious and recalls in a low serious voice that, on hearing Fauntroy's words, the by then dying Jefferson Davis grabbed him by the collar and said that if it wasn't for a Jew, there would be no CSA. In the fictional present of 2004, Jews still live and are seen with gratitude by at least some Confederates for Benjamin ensured that a CSA through out which slavery is still legal exists. (The CSA also sided with a fictionalized Hitler in World War II.) Film director Kevin Willmott commented that yes it is true that blacks and Jews did work together in the Civil Rights movement but that that should not make it seem as if Jews were always friends to blacks.

Benjamin figures prominently in novelist Dara Horn's recent short story "Passover in New Orleans," a fictitious account of an attempt to assassinate a New Orleans Jewish Confederate official before he can assassinate Lincoln. The story appears in Granta, vol. 97, Spring 2007. In a less serious vein, Benjamin was the "detective" in John Dickson Carr's Papa La-Bas, a 1968 mystery novel set in New Orleans in 1858.


  1. ^ Florida Atlantic University Judaica Collection biography
  2. ^ Lebeson, Anita Libman, Pilgrim People: A History of the Jews in America from 1492 to 1974, New York: Minerva Press, 1975, p. 27
  3. ^ Judah Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate, The American Jewish Historical Society - accessed July 23, 2008
  4. ^ Wilkes County, Georgia - The Story of Washington-Wilkes part V
  5. ^ Ott, Eloise Robinson, and Chazal, Louis Hickman, Ocali Country, Ocala:Marion Publishers, 1966, p.87
  6. ^ Florida State Parks - Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at (Gamble Plantation) State Historic Site
  7. ^ Lebeson, Anita Libman, Pilgrim People: A History of the Jews in America from 1492 to 1974, New York: Minerva Press, 1975, p. 275
  8. ^ a b Lebeson, Anita Libman, Pilgrim People: A History of the Jews in America from 1492 to 1974, New York: Minerva Press, 1975, p. 274


  • Evans, Eli N., Judah Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, New York: The Free Press, 1988.

External links

  • United States Congress. "Judah P. Benjamin (id: B000365)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Solomon W. Downs
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Louisiana
March 4, 1853February 4, 1861
Served alongside: Pierre Soulé and John Slidell
Succeeded by
John S. Harris(1)
Legal offices
Preceded by
Confederate States Attorney General
February 25, 1861September 17, 1861
Succeeded by
Thomas Bragg
Political offices
Preceded by
Leroy Pope Walker
Confederate States Secretary of War
September 17, 1861March 24, 1862
Succeeded by
George W. Randolph
Preceded by
Robert M.T. Hunter
Confederate States Secretary of State
March 18, 1862May 10, 1865
Succeeded by
Notes and references
1. Because of Louisiana's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for seven years before Harris succeeded Benjamin.