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Judah Philip Benjamin

lawyer, Confederate Cabinet member, English barrister

Judah Philip Benjamin

Judah Philip Benjamin was born into a Sephardic Jewish family on the island of St. Thomas in the British West Indies on August 6, 1811. In 1813, the Benjamin family moved to Fayeteville, North Carolina, where they had relatives. In 1821, the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina, a city then well known known for its tolerance towards the Jewish faith. Judah entered Yale College in 1825, but left for unknown reasons in 1827, after which he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, which also had a reputation for tolerance of Jews.

Soon after his arrival in New Orleans, Benjamin began reading law in an establsihed office. To earn money, he taught English to French Creoles, one of whom was Natalie Bauché de St. Martin. Benjamin passed the state bar in 1832, and married Natalie the following year; he received two female slaves as part of the dowry. While his legal career was successful almost from the beginning, his marriage was not, and by the 1840's Natalie Benjamin was living in Paris, France, with the couple's only child, Ninette.

Law Career

Within months of his admission to the bar, Benjamin argued his first case before the Louisiana State Supreme Court, and won. His successful advocacy of an admiralty case so early in his career earned him a national reputation, but few subsequent clients. In 1834 he and Thomas Slidell published Digest of the Reported Decisions of the Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans and the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana, which required the analysis of 6,000 cases. The book was an immediate success, and made Benjamin a much sought-after attorney.Benjamin became a specialist in commercial law, and soon became one of the most successful commercial lawyers in the country. Although he tried some jury cases, he preferred bench trials in commercial cases and was an expert at appeals. In one case, he successfully represented the seller of a slave against allegations that the seller knew the slave had incurable tuberculosis. In 1842, he represented insurance companies being sued for the value of slaves who had revolted aboard the slave ship Creole. The rebels had sailed the ship to the Bahamas, where most were freed, as Britain had abolished slavery. The owners of the slaves brought suit for $150,000 against their insurers, who declined to pay. Benjamin made several arguments, the most prominent of which was that the slaveowners had brought the revolt on themselves by packing the slaves in overcrowded conditions. The court ultimately ruled in favor of Benjamin's clients. Benjamin's brief was widely reprinted, including by abolitionist groups.

Business Career

By the early 1840's, Benjamin was wealthy from his law practice and, with a partner, bought a sugar plantation, Bellechase. He threw his energy into improving Bellechasse, importing new varieties of sugar cane and adopting up-to-date methods and equipment to extract and process the sugar. He purchased 140 slaves to work the plantation, and had a reputation as a humane slaveowner.

In addition to his law and plantation careers, Benjamin also helped organize the Illinois Central Railroad, and lobbied for public and private financing of a railroad across the Mexican isthmus near Oaxaca. The latter project died after the outbreak of the Civil War, after backers had invested several hundred thousand dollars.

Political Career

Benjamin was elected as a Whig to the Louisiana House of Representatives in 1842, and served in that body until 1844. In 1844/5, he served as the New Orleans representative to a state constitutional convention, where he successfully fought against considering slaves 3/5th of a person for electoral purposes; under the new constitution, slaves were not counted as part of the electorate at all.

In 1848, Benjamin was a Whig member of the Electoral College, and voted for General Zachary Taylor. He and other Louisianans accompanied President-elect Taylor to Washington for his inauguration, and Benjamin attended a state dinner given by outgoing President James Knox Polk. In 1850, Millard Fillmore, who had succeeded Taylor after his death earlier that year, appointed Benjamin as judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Benjamin was confirmed by the Senate, but declined the appointment because he felt the $3,500 salary was inadequate.

In 1852, the Louisiana State Senate elected Benjamin (as a Whig) to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. When he was sworn in on March 4, 1853, he became the first acknowledged Jew to serve as a U.S. Senator. He was reelected as a Democrat in 1858, and ultimately served until resigning on February 4, 1861. In the Senate he was noted as an eloquent defender of Southern interests, including retention of slavery. He never served on a major committee, howver, and was generally unsuccessful in gaining majority support for his positions.

As was the case with many of his Southern colleagues, Benjamin's decision to leave the Senate was brought about by the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, which he and his colleagues saw as a prelude to Southern secession.

Confederate Career

Benjamin met Jefferson Davis while both were serving the U.S. Senate. Although they had their differences, and once came close to dueling, they became friends, and Davis greatly respected Benjamin's skills as an attorney. It was that respect that led Davis to name Benjamin Attorney General of the Confederate States of America, in February 1861. The Confederacy’s lack of federal courts or established Department of Justice left the position with little functionality, however, so Benjamin spent most of his tenure hosting dignitaries when President Davis was unable to and offering up advice whenever needed. During the first cabinet meeting, Benjamin suggested that the government buy 150,000 bales of cotton and sell them to the United Kingdom with the proceeds funding the war effort. The plan was rejected, however, as most of the cabinet members believed the war would be short lived.

After Secretary of War Leroy Walker resigned in September 1861, President Davis appointed Benjamin as his replacement. Lacking military experience, Benjamin found difficulty dealing with the problems that plagued the Confederacy for the entirety of the war, namely lack of funding and supplies, and was under constant fire from the press and state governments. After the Confederate loss at the Battle of Roanoke Island, during which General Henry A. Wise had received little support from Benjamin, a special committee was established to assess the work of the War Department. In February 1862, following the committee’s investigation, Benjamin resigned from his position as Secretary of War and was appointed to the vacant Secretary of State position.

Benjamin's tenure as Secretary of State was marked by two major goals: to gain support from England and France and to gain recognition as an independent nation. In early 1863, he was able to negotiate a deal with France for a loan of 15 million dollars with a 7% interest rate. He was never able to garner British help, however, nor was he able to gain official recognition from any nation.

Post-War Career

Benjamin fled Richmond with President Davis and the rest of the Cabinet on April 2, 1865. Rather than risk arrest by the North, he chose to leave the United States for England, and arrived there in August. He subsequently studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, London, was admitted to the bar in that city in 1866, and quickly became a highly respected barrister. He retired in 1883 and moved to Paris, France, and died there, alone, on May 6, 1884.


Civil War Trust
Jewish Virtual Library

See Also

Charleston, South Carolina
Zachary Taylor
James Knox Polk
Millard Fillmore
Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis

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The Robinson Library >> Civil War Period, 1861-1865 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 03, 2018.