Americans Of Jewish Descent
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Judah Philip Benjamin

Judah Philip Benjamin[1]

Male 1811 - 1884  (72 years)

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  • Name Judah Philip Benjamin  [2, 3, 4
    Born 6 Aug 1811  St. Augustine, Florida Find all individuals with events at this location  [2, 3
    Gender Male 
    Residence 1825  New Haven, New Haven, CT Find all individuals with events at this location  [3
    attends Yale College - does not take a degree 
    Arrival 1828  New Orleans, LA Find all individuals with events at this location  [3
    Arrival 1865  England Find all individuals with events at this location  [3
    Reference Number 4017 
    Died 6 May 1884  Paris, Seine, France Find all individuals with events at this location  [2
    Buried 10 May 1884  Père La Cháise Cemetery, Paris, Seine, FRA Find all individuals with events at this location 
    Person ID I4017  aojd
    Last Modified 17 Feb 2012 

    Mother Rebecca de Mendes,   d. 1847 
    Family ID F1420  Group Sheet  |  Family Chart

  • Notes 
    • (Research):AJLLJ Portrait Database 5 Aug 2011

      Surely the most controversial figure in the annals of early American Jewry, Judah P. Benjamin was portrayed in his lifetime in strikingly varied tones— the "brains of the confederacy" and the cause of the South's defeat, a brilliant intellect or a conniving crook.
           Judah P. Benjamin was the eldest son Philip Benjamin and Rebecca de Mendes Benjamin, a London dried fruit vendor and the daughter of a prominent Dutch Sephardic family. On both sides, family had been settling throughout the West Indies and in the United States, and the young couple followed too crossed the Atlantic not long after their marriage. Judah was born on the island of St. Croix, then part of the British West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two years later the family sailed for Fayetteville, North Carolina, finally settling in Charleston in 1821 where Philip set up a fruit shop.
           The family struggled financially in South Carolina, and young Benjamin, precocious and ambitious, served as a source of hope for his parents. At 14, he headed north to study law at Yale. A Southerner, a Jew and poor, he was certainly an outsider in New Haven, but his academic performance was a stellar. Of his first four semesters, Benjamin twice had the highest average in his class, and twice tied with another student for that distinction. He was active in debate clubs, and known for his eloquence and wit. He was awarded the Berkeley Prize for academic achievement. Then, after two years, Benjamin left Yale under mysterious circumstances, about which there would be extensive public speculation and accusations in later years.
           In 1828 Benjamin arrived in New Orleans. He worked a series of jobs, finally landing a position assisting a notary, essential training if he was to follow his dream of becoming a lawyer. Around this time, Benjamin also began giving English lessons to the daughter of an insurance official from New Orleans' Creole elite, Natalie St. Martin. In 1833 they were married, a coup for the social-climbing Benjamin. Though his religion proved somewhat problematic, Benjamin refused to convert, agreeing, however, to raise their children as Catholics. Theirs would prove a difficult marriage, though for entirely other reasons— loneliness, for Natalie, would be the cost of her husband's ambitions.
           As a young lawyer, Benjamin could only secure minor contracts and petty cases, and so he simultaneously dedicated himself to composing a book on Louisiana law. Coauthored with future Louisiana Chief Justice Tom Slidell, the work analyzed over 6,000 cases, upon completion emerged as a standard legal text in the state, and helped advance Benjamin's career. As his legal reputation grew, he found himself increasingly involved in local politics.
           By the 1840s Benjamin was successful enough to afford a plantation, Bellchasse, outside of New Orleans. The purchase had a dual purpose— giving Benjamin a new level of respectability as a "gentleman farmer" (essential for a career in Louisiana politics), and removing Natalie from New Orleans society, where her infidelities were becoming notorious. The former of these aims, it turned out, was more easily accomplished than the latter. Bellechasse pioneered sugar production in Louisiana, and Benjamin had the "distinction" of owning 140 slaves. However, he was often gone from Bellechasse, dedicating himself thoroughly to his practice, and Natalie's feelings of abandonment and depression increased, even after their daughter Ninette was born in 1843. The following year she announced her intention to leave Louisiana all together and settle in Paris.
           In 1842 Benjamin won his first race for public office, elected to the Louisiana legislature. A decade later he was elected to the U.S. Senate. By some counts Benjamin was the first Jew to serve as a U.S. senator, for though David (Levy) Yulee served earlier, he converted and denied ever having been Jewish. In the fall of 1852, the same year that Benjamin was elected to his first term in the Senate, outgoing president, Millard Fillmore, offered Benjamin a seat on the Supreme Court. Benjamin turned down the nomination, and his subsequent senatorial career was a dazzling one. While he did end up in the Supreme Court, it was as lawyer arguing cases, not on the bench.
           He was known for his oratorical prowess, perhaps the most eloquent defender of Southern interests. "Benjamin was collected and self-possessed in debates," remarked Representative J.L.M. Curry, "did not use notes and had a memory like Macaulay's." He quickly developed a close association with fellow southerner Jefferson Davis, a relationship that was marked by competition as much as friendship, and that would prove decisive for both men. A famous, and most likely apocryphal, story has Benjamin responding to an anti-Semitic comment on the floor of the Senate (from Ben Wade of Ohio, it is often told, though several variations on the tale can be found) by saying, "It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand of the Deity, amidst the thunderings and lightings of Mount Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain."     
           Natalie returned from France to accompany her husband to Washington upon his reelection in 1858. They set up in mansion with plans for extensive entertaining and hosting lavish balls. However, rumors followed her to the capital. As one Washington society lady described it, "Mrs. Benjamin was very gay and very happy. My father and mother condemned her strongly because of the treatment of her husband. [Benjamin] idolized her and gave her everything she wanted. I do not think he knew what was going on. It came as a terrible shock to him." Again she departed for Paris, this time it really would be for good. Benjamin would visit her once a year.
           Meanwhile, the course of American politics was growing more and more tumultuous. The threat of secession, spoken of for years, became a reality, starting with South Carolina on December 20, 1860. As late as December 11, 1860, the New Orleans Picayune reported, "Benjamin opposes secession, except in last resort." However, anger and tensions boiled over. On New Years Eve, Benjamin delivered his famous farewell speech to the Senate. Varina Davis, Jefferson Davis' wife, wrote of the address, "his voice rose over the vast audience distinct and clear…he held his audience spellbound for over an hour and so still were they that a whisper could have been heard." Before an overflowing gallery, Benjamin warned:

      What may be the fate of this horrible contest no man can tell…but this much I will say: the fortunes of war may be adverse to our arms, you may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and fire you may set our cities in flame…you may, under protection of your advancing armies, give shelter to the furious fanatics who desire, and profess to desire, nothing more than to add all the horrors of a servile insurrection to the calamities of civil war; you may do all this— and more too, if more there be— but you never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!
           The speech, of course, drew reactions as fiercely divergent as the political and ethical convictions of the times. Louisiana seceded on January 26, 1861, and on February 4 Benjamin officially withdrew his seat.
           Such a prominent figure in the secession drama, Benjamin found himself the object of extensive, if often unpleasant, national attention. For instance, his departure from Yale, an obscure incident from the past, suddenly became the focus of public debate when an article written by a classmate claimed that Benjamin had been forced out after stealing from other students. The article, not surprisingly, appeared in the Independent, an abolitionist paper. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Delta came to Benjamin's defense. Similarly, Benjamin's religion became a point seized on by many infuriated northerners. The Boston Transcript published an article entitled "The Children of Israel" which impugned the disloyalty of American Jews, pointing to the support of the secession by Benjamin and other Southern Jews. Isaac Mayer Wise wrote an incensed response in which he drew attention the vast numbers of Republican Jews. Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, who would later serve as Vice President, said of Benjamin that, "his heart was in this foul wicked plot to dismember the Union, to overthrow the government of his adopted country which gives equality of rights even to that race that stoned prophets and crucified the Redeemer of the world."
           Benjamin was appointed Attorney General by Jefferson Davis under the provisional government of the Confederate States in February 1861. In August of the same year he was appointed Acting Secretary of War, replacing the inept Leroy Walker of Alabama. Though early Confederate victories were a cause of great joy for Benjamin, he soon found himself in conflict with some of the generals and governors as things turned for the South. Ultimately, Benjamin did not fare much better than his predecessor and resigned in February 1862 to take up the post of Secretary of State.
           In his new position, Benjamin became obsessed with trying to lure France and Britain into the war. Though unsuccessful, Benjamin was able to secure loans from France. He and Davis grew very close, each relying on the other's judgment more than any one else's. Meanwhile, Benjamin was subjected to anti-Semitic attacks in the South and the North alike.
           During the final days of the Confederacy, Benjamin brought before the Confederate Congress, the idea of using slaves as soldiers. His suggestion, though practical perhaps, elicited a furious response from the Congress, for it undermined the logic behind the Southern defense of slavery.
           When John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln in 1865, Davis and Benjamin were suspected of having plotted the act and, as the martyred Lincoln was compared to Christ in the Northern press, Benjamin was pilloried as Judas. With the South's ultimate defeat, Benjamin, fearing that he could never receive a fair trial if charged with Lincoln's murder, fled to England.
           Upon his arrival in London, Benjamin briefly studied English law and was admitted to the bar in 1866. He made a career as a barrister, published a classic legal text on the sale of personal property, and was appointed Queen's Counsel in 1872.
           A solitary man, estranged from his wife, Benjamin died alone in England, and his daughter arranged to have him buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Until 1938, when the Paris chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy provided an inscription with his American name, his simple tombstone was engraved with the name "Philippe Benjamin."
           Surely the best-known posthumous depiction of Benjamin— and a caricature at that— appears in the epic poem "John Brown's Body" by Stephen Vincent Benet. Describing him as a "dark prince," Benet depicts Judah Benjamin as outsider in the inner circles of the Confederacy:

      Judah P. Benjamin, the dapper Jew,?Seal-sleek, black-eyed, lawyer and epicure,?Able, well-hated, face alive with life,?Looked round the council-chamber with the slight?Perpetual smile he held before himself?continually like a silk-ribbed fan.?. . . [His] quick, shrewd fluid mind?Weighed Gentiles in an old balance . . .?The eyes stared, searching.?"I am a Jew. What am I doing here?" [5]

  • Sources 
    1. [S285] .

    2. [S4] PG. 18 BENJAMIN I (Reliability: 3).

    3. [S96] 17. (Reliability: 3).


    5. [S294] BENJAMIN, JUDAH PHILIP (Reliability: 3).