Judah P. Benjamin
The Jewish second-in-command of the Southern Confederacy during the Civil War was once a United States senator.
Judah Philip Benjamin was a politician, a lawyer, a United States Senator, and during the American Civil War, the second-in-command of the Confederacy.
Benjamin was born August 6, 1811 on the island of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies (the present-day Virgin Islands) to Jewish parents. At the time of his birth, Benjamin's family was in transit from England to America. However, due to the War of 1812, the family was forced to settle in the West Indies until the war ended. They finally arrived in America in 1814, settling in Charleston, South Carolina.
Benjamin was an exemplary student. At the age of 14, he entered Yale University. Two years later he was expelled (no record exists as to the reason) and eventually, Benjamin moved to New Orleans.
Benjamin apprenticed at a law firm and began to study for the bar--a complicated course of action because, to become a lawyer in Louisiana, the state's use of the Napoleonic Code required fluency in both English and French. In order to fulfill this requirement, Benjamin took a job teaching English to the daughter of a prominent Creole family, Natalie St. Martin, so that he could learn French.
The tutoring sessions worked well and provided unintended benefits--on February 12, 1833, the 21-year-old Benjamin and the 16-year-old Natalie were married. As a condition of marriage, Benjamin agreed that the couple's children would be raised in the Catholic faith. That same year, Benjamin was admitted into the Louisiana bar.
Benjamin's law practice flourished. He authored a seminal work on legal contracts, Benjamin on Contracts, which examined existing contracts jurisprudence to a depth previously unknown in America. As his wealth and status grew, Benjamin took on the trappings of antebellum Southern aristocracy. He purchased a large sugar plantation on the outskirts of New Orleans and owned 140 slaves. In 1843, Natalie gave birth to the couple's only child, a daughter named Ninette. Though they never divorced, a few years later his wife moved to Paris and took their daughter with her. The family would never live together again.
In 1842 Benjamin was elected, as part of the Whig political party, to the lower house of the Louisiana legislature. Ten years later, he sold his plantation and all of his slaves. That same year, the Louisiana legislature selected him for the United States Senate.
Before he could even be seated as a senator, Benjamin was also offered a seat on the Supreme Court by outgoing President Fillmore. Benjamin declined and was sworn into the Senate on March 4, 1853, becoming the second Jewish senator (after David Levy Yulee of Florida, in 1845).
Benjamin was offered an appointment to the Supreme Court once more, in 1854, by President Tyler. Again, Benjamin declined. In the Senate, Benjamin gained a reputation as a skilled tactician and orator, yet his Jewish background and service for the slave-holding South provided points for attack. An abolitionist senator referred to him as "an Egyptian in Israelite clothing."
Benjamin served in the body until February 4, 1861 when he resigned from office along with other senators from the seceding Southern states. The Civil War had arrived.
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