Judah Philip Benjamin (1811-1884), a fanatical southern patriot best known for his various roles as President Jefferson Davis’s second-in-command, was at once one of the most prominent and one of the most reviled American Jews in the 19th century. He was simultaneously a gifted and brilliant lawyer, orator and statesman, and a passionate advocate for the institution of slavery; he was Jewish America’s greatest slaveholder, but he argued in an 1842 legal brief that slaves were human beings and that slavery was “against the law of nature”; as Davis’s chief and most trusted advisor who was frequently referred to as “the brains of the Confederacy,” he was also blamed for its defeat; and, having ascended to the greatest heights of the Confederacy, he remained an outsider because of his Judaism.
Some critics, who demean him as “the court Jew of the Confederacy” and as “Davis’s pet Jew,” argue that an insecure Davis chose him not only because of his genius but, perhaps more importantly, because he believed that no Jew could ever challenge him for domination of the Confederate government.
The first American Jew to be propelled into public awareness, Benjamin served as the first Jewish United States senator not to renounce his faith, became the first Jew to serve as a Cabinet officer, and declined two nominations to serve as the first Jew on the Supreme Court. Although he never hid his Judaism and refused to convert, he was a wholly non-practicing Jew who intermarried, agreed to raise his children in the Catholic faith and, as shall see, never used his high positions to advocate for Jewish interests or to benefit the American Jewish community.
Born in St. Croix in the Danish West Indies to observant Sephardic Jewish parents from Great Britain, Benjamin was named for his paternal grandfather, who performed his bris. Seeking greater economic success, his shopkeeper father moved to Charleston, South Carolina, which then had the largest Jewish population in the United States and where his Jewishly learned father ceased his Sabbath observance and was among the founders of the first American Reform congregation, and his mother created enmity with her Jewish competitors by keeping her dry goods store open on Shabbat.
There is no information regarding the extent of Benjamin’s Jewish education – an 1838 fire destroyed the family’s synagogue along with all records of any early religious education he may have had – but he was an incredible child prodigy who, at age 14, became the second Jew to attended Yale law school but, for reasons unknown, he never completed his education there. He continued to study law privately in New Orleans while earning a meager living as a tutor but, after his admission to the Louisiana Bar at age 21, he went on to become very successful, well-known, and wealthy. He published a major work on contracts that became a standard text in the field, and he declined Supreme Court nominations by both presidents Fillmore and Pierce.
Taking on the trappings of antebellum southern aristocracy, Benjamin purchased Belle Chasse, a sugar plantation with 140 slaves (making him by far the largest American Jewish slaveholder of all time), which he sold in 1852. He served in both houses of the Louisiana legislature before being elected to the U.S. Senate as a Whig in 1852, becoming the first Jewish senator not to renounce his faith. [The first Jewish senator was David Levy of Florida, who formally converted to Christianity and legally changed his name to Yulee after his marriage to a Christian woman.]
Benjamin was a vociferous supporter of the right of southerners to own slaves and, when Louisiana seceded from the Union, he withdrew from the Senate, returned to New Orleans, and was appointed attorney general of the Confederacy by Jefferson Davis, becoming the first Jew ever to hold Cabinet-level office. Only a few months later, despite Benjamin lacking any military experience, Davis appointed him as Secretary of War. When the Confederacy sustained embarrassing losses in the first years of the Civil War because it lacked sufficient forces and materiel to match the Union’s – a fact which, for political and strategic reasons, Davis and Benjamin did not disclose publicly – southern antisemites blamed “Judas Iscariot Benjamin.” Benjamin “fell on his sword,” took the blame for Southern military failures, and resigned his position in March 1862, but Davis quickly brought his trusted counsel back, this time as Secretary of State.
Anti-Benjamin antisemitism in the North was such that after Lincoln’s murder by John Wilkes Booth, the haters climbed out of their ratholes to blame “the Judas Jew” for the assassination. Fearing that he would be little more than a scapegoat brought to trial before a kangaroo court, he fled to England via Florida. He was indicted in 1867 in Richmond for waging war against the United States, but the indictment was eventually quashed when the British government rejected Washington’s extradition demand.
Anti-Benjamin antisemitism did not cease upon his death. On one hand, he was blamed for the South’s defeat and, on the other hand, he was ironically held out by apologists for the segregated South as a symbol of the religious tolerance of the antebellum South and as a defense against charges of southern bigotry. Perhaps his most famous posthumous caricature was by poet Stephen Vincent Benet in John Brown’s Body, where he describes Benjamin as a “dark prince” and as “the dapper Jew, seal-sleek, black-eyed, lawyer and epicure” who, “able and well-hated,” uses his “quick, shrewd fluid mind” to “weigh Gentiles in an old balance” and searches for an answer to the question “I am a Jew. What am I doing here?”
In England, Benjamin, a fugitive minister of a vanquished power, launched a renewed and successful legal career as an English barrister; published several important volumes on English law, including Benjamin on Sales, a classic legal text on the sale of personal property; and again rose to a high legal position as Queen’s Counsel. In the very rare February 25, 1869, letter exhibited here to Messrs. Thomson, his legal publishers, he acknowledges receipt of Acts of Congress of the last session and volumes 39 & 40 of N. Y. Reports, requesting vol. 38, which he had not received. It is interesting to note that, notwithstanding his self-imposed exile to England, he maintained his interest in keeping up with “Yankee” law.
Developing substantive analysis of Benjamin’s Judaism and the degree to which he used his influence and position to advocate for his coreligionists is seriously hampered by the fact that he was a very private man who remained intentionally opaque and rarely discussed his role. Most of his papers were lost after the Civil War, when he fled penniless to England and, to assure his historical obscurity and to deprive biographers and historians of further opportunity to vilify him (it didn’t work), he burned much of his remaining personal papers before his death. While there are any number of reports, newspaper articles, public documents, and accounts of his speeches that shape a public picture of him, they provide little insight into his private thoughts and beliefs and, in particular, there is a conspicuous absence of any Jewish references in these materials. However, evidence nonetheless exists that he affirmatively passed up opportunities to speak out and to act on behalf of his people.
For example, when the Washington Hebrew Congregation was originally organized in 1856 and its application for a charter was presented to Congress, Benjamin was not among the signatories and he made no statement of support – or comment at all, for that matter – when it was presented on the Senate floor. (His name never appeared on the Congregation’s membership list, but this could be because, having intermarried, he was ineligible for membership.)
As another example, there was broad public opposition, both in Jewish and non-Jewish quarters, to an 1854 trade treaty with Switzerland, pursuant to which Swiss cantons (administrative counties) were authorized to unilaterally determine whether to permit non-Christian Americans to reside within their borders. Staunch opponents of the treaty included President Fillmore, Daniel Webster, and Senator (and later Secretary of State) Lewis Cass and, although Benjamin did present a petition from American Jews, it was quickly referred to the Foreign Relations Committee and his fellow senators surely took notice that their only Jewish colleague had made no effort to speak out in support of the petition from the Senate floor.
In a third example, when an 1860 treaty with China and Japan included a provision that protected only the religious rights of Christians, Max Lilienthal, a leading American Reform rabbi, wrote to Benjamin asking him to intercede on behalf of the American Jewish community. In response, Benjamin did no more than acknowledge receipt of the letter, and there is no record of his having taken any action to defend the religious rights of Jews (and others) in the treaty.
Although some apologists go through various complex machinations and contortions attempting to demonstrate that Benjamin did have an active interest in Judaism and did stand up for his coreligionists, these allegations are easily deconstructed by facts and credible evidence.
First, several critics credit Benjamin with responding to an abolitionist senator’s dismissive reference to him as “that Jew from Louisiana” and as “an Israelite in Egyptian clothing” with a rejoinder that
It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate hand of Deity amidst the thunderings and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of the distinguished gentleman who is opposed to me were herding swine in Scandinavia.
The problem is not only that no record supports this proposition but, more significantly, that very sentiment had been expressed by British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”
Second, according to noted Virginia historian Herbert T. Ezekiel, when Benjamin was in San Francisco in 1860 arguing an important case, he reportedly delivered a Yom Kippur homily in a synagogue there. However, as Bertram W. Korn writes in Judah Benjamin as a Jew, Benjamin was such a well-known, high public figure that any appearance in a synagogue would have become national Jewish news, and no newspaper or other publication ever mentioned Benjamin’s appearance at the synagogue, let alone his giving a Yom Kippur sermon there. Benjamin did, however, deliver an address on November 7, 1860, in which he discussed the “distribution of [government] offices” and bitterly criticized the exclusion of Jews by high government officials with the authority to appoint them.
But while a newspaper article in The Weekly Gleaner, a San Francisco rag edited by the Rev. Julius Eckman, confirms that Benjamin did give an address in San Francisco, it conveniently failed to mention that the event was held under the auspices of the Episcopal Church and for the benefit of the Church, and not in a synagogue. And while Eckman confirms that Benjamin discussed anti-Jewish prejudice and alleges that he publicly aligned himself with his fellow Jews, the actual record demonstrates that Eckman either skewed the facts to portray Benjamin in a positive light or simply made it up. The actual text of Benjamin’s speech demonstrates that the subject of his attack was political patronage in general and not discrimination against Jews:
When we find in the express language of our fundamental charter of government [presumably, the Constitution] a prohibition against requiring any religious test as a qualification for office, can any rational man pretend that a partisan test would become the established, rigorous and exclusive rule in dispersing executive privilege? . . . I do reiterate a deliberate conviction that any indiscriminate removal of all subordinate incumbents from office which they discharge with ability and fidelity, for the sole purpose of bestowing them as rewards on political adherents for partisan services, is the last degree subversive of political morality. (Emphasis added.)
In any event, as Korn concludes, it would have been wholly out of character for Benjamin to advocate for Jewish rights, as we will see further below.
Third, historian Ezekiel writes further in his History of the Jews of Richmond that “it has been positively stated by the late Ellis Bottighmer that he had seen Benjamin called up to the reading of the Law at Beth Ahabah Synagogue in Richmond.” The problem is that Benjamin was a Sephardic Jew and even were he inclined to attend a synagogue, it would almost certainly have been Beth Shalome, with its Portuguese ritual, and not the Ashkenazi Beth Ahabah, with its Germanic ritual. In any event, it is most unlikely that Benjamin attended services in Richmond because he had lived in New Orleans for more than thirty years and in Washington for more than seven and there are no records of his having ever attended a synagogue in either place.
In a similar claim, Rabbi Abraham Simon writes in The History of the Washington Hebrew Congregation that Benjamin was honored with holding a new Torah scroll at a welcome celebration at the New Orleans synagogue for the new Torah. However, again, there is no record or report of this ever happening, which certainly would have been reported had it occurred, and the elderly rabbi’s story is most likely the result of an erroneous recollection of a benefit party held at Harmony Hall on February 24, 1856, to raise funds for a Torah scroll. According to a report in the Washington Evening Star the next day, there were speeches, toasts, and letters from several dignitaries, including one from the Honorable J.P. Benjamin of Louisiana – who, unlike other notables, did not send a contribution.
Fourth, Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of Reform Judaism in North America and its predominant figure, wrote in his Reminiscences about a visit to Washington in 1850 where he discussed Judaism with Benjamin, Daniel Webster (then Secretary of State), and Lt. Matthew Maury, a famous oceanographer. Wise claims that Webster told Benjamin that he had a Jewish friend whom he would have characterized as a “coreligionist” but “I do not know how much or how little you believe; and, in truth, we four are all coreligionists because we are all Unitarians.” Benjamin allegedly protested that “Judaism and Christianity are entirely different” and, when Wise shared his conclusion that the only substantive difference between Judaism and Unitarianism was in the historical development of the respective faiths but not the core doctrine, Benjamin supposedly objected to that as well:
He [Benjamin] had a confused notion of Orthodox Portuguese Judaism, and although he rarely heard anything about it, and was never guided by it, he yet insisted that he had no co-religionists except Jews. The conversation was very interesting to me; only I felt sorry that Benjamin could not cite one Jewish source, while Webster was thoroughly versed in the Bible and had a full knowledge of history . . .”
But as Korn demonstrates, this, too, is pure fiction, probably designed by Wise to cast Benjamin in a more positive Jewish light. The meeting could not have happened in 1850 as described by Wise because he has Webster referring to Benjamin as “Senator Benjamin” – when Webster died on October 24, 1852, and Benjamin did not become a senator until months later on March 4, 1853. Moreover, neither Benjamin nor Webster were anywhere near Washington when this meeting was allegedly held.
Finally, virtually all historians agree that Benjamin never converted to Christianity and remained a proud Jew. However, there are some rumors that he converted before his death, but this may simply have been based upon his very religious Catholic wife summoning a priest to perform the last rites as he lay unconscious on his deathbed and the fact that Christian funeral services were held in a church and he was interred in his wife’s family crypt in a Paris cemetery. In 1948, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in conjunction with two local synagogues, erected a modest tombstone-like granite slab in Charlotte in Benjamin’s memory but, although he was at the very center of Southern history, “woke” city officials – urged on by the liberal Charlotte Jewish community – have removed it.
Many American Jews at the time felt profound shame for their coreligionist who served as a spokesman for slavery, and many contemporary Jewish historians remain loathe to pay homage to an enigmatic, educated and brilliant man who was himself a slaveholder. Benjamin nonetheless leaves a legacy which, although essentially symbolic, was nonetheless significant in Jewish American history. First, having achieved higher political office than any American Jew, before or since, he was looked up to by Jews as an example of how there were no limits to what a Jew could accomplish in the United States, even without denying one’s ancestry or renouncing one’s faith. Second, by withstanding countless bitter antisemitic attacks from both the North and the South and by rising above them, he served as an important example for American Jews.