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.
Entering the Southern Slaveholding Aristocracy
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.
“An Egyptian in Israelite Clothing”
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.
Jefferson Davis’ Right-Hand Man
In March of 1861, Benjamin was appointed Attorney General by Confederate President Jefferson Davis, with whom Benjamin had served in the Senate. Davis often referred to Benjamin as “the brains of the Confederacy.” His appointment made Benjamin the first Jew to ever serve in an American cabinet. That same year, Davis requested that he accept the position of Secretary of War.
After public outcry over Confederate failings on the battlefield, in particular when reinforcements never arrived at the battle of Roanoke Island, Benjamin resigned as Secretary of War and was promptly appointed Secretary of State. Benjamin served in that position for the remainder of the war, often working at Davis’ side for up to 12 hours a day.
On February 9, 1865, two months before the Confederate armies surrendered, Benjamin gave the most controversial speech of his political career, an impassioned plea for the Confederacy to arm their slaves and enlist them as Confederate soldiers. In Richmond, before an audience of 10,000, Benjamin asserted: “Let us say to every Negro who wishes to go into the ranks on condition of being made free–‘Go and fight; you are free.’ If we impress them, they will go against us. We know that everyone who could fight for his freedom has had no chance.”
Benjamin argued that Southerners had gotten the opportunity to fight for their independence from the North, but slaves had not. If enlisted, slaves could be fighting for two freedoms, their own from slavery and for Southern independence from the North.
Benjamin’s controversial plan met with disdain among defenders of slavery, but it was eventually passed by the Confederate Congress. Its passage in March 1865 came too late; no slave would ever take up arms for the Confederacy.
Life Abroad after the Civil War
Fearing that he would be hung as a traitor, Benjamin fled the United States in the final days of the Civil War. He arrived in England, where, barely a year after the close of the war, he was admitted to the British bar in June of 1866. He would never return to the United States. For the final 18 years of his life, Benjamin practiced as a successful barrister, eventually attaining the highest rank in British legal profession–that of a Queen’s Counsel.
So loath was Benjamin to have his biography written that he burned all of his personal artifacts and papers before his death. Consequently, historians have had difficulty in reconstructing his life.
Benjamin died in Paris on May 6, 1884 at the age of 72. He was buried in a Paris cemetery with a simple headstone, reading only “Phillipe Benjamin.” In 1936, the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a monument at his gravesite.