Judah Philip Benjamin
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.
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.