The Rise, Fall, and Rise of One of the Most Remarkable Jews in America A new short biography examines the life of a Jewish Confederate leader.

Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy

By James Traub (2021, Yale University Press Jewish Lives Series) 185 pages, with notes and index.

1. The Jewish Player in the Confederacy’s Theater of the Absurd

On February 9, 1865, an overflow crowd of more than ten thousand White people jammed into the African Church in Richmond, Virginia, for a meeting at high noon. Ironically, the African Church had the largest auditorium in the city. Whites, of course, could commandeer the building whenever they wanted. As James Traub writes, “… in a bizarre irony, white Richmond would use the church in order to determine the destiny of their slaves without, of course, asking the slaves themselves.” (123)

Union troops were closing in the capital of the Confederacy; their cause was lost; their military defeat was imminent. Yet unconditional surrender, Lincoln’s sole terms of negotiation, was unacceptable. This meeting, like so many others in the south at the time, was almost like a religious camp revival, an attempt to keep people’s spirits up, to figure out a way to continue the fight.  But this particular meeting was meant to do more than that. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, aged, distressed and despairing, in pain from any number of ailments, was there to float a new policy initiative. He received a ten-minute ovation before he spoke a word. But, in the end, he did not announce the new policy. So controversial was this policy that it was feared that if Davis announced it, it would ruin his stature, his authority as the chief of the so-called southern state. The task was left to Judah Benjamin (1811-1884), the Confederacy’s secretary of state, its best legal mind, and one of its best orators in this American age of grand political speech-making. If anyone could sell this policy to this crowd, Benjamin was the most likely person to do it. Benjamin’s speech was the most absurd ever given by an American politician. After massaging the crowd with the usual panegyrics about southern devotion, southern courage, and southern sacrifice, he finally got to the heart of the matter:

 

“Our resources of white population have greatly diminished; but you had 680,000 black men of the same ages; and could Divine prophecy have told us of the fierceness of the enemy’s death grapple at our throats—could we have known what we now know, that Lincoln confessed, that without 200,000 Negroes which he stole from us, he would be compelled to give up the contest, should we have entertained any doubts upon the subject?

“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.’”

 

Naturally, there were many in the audience who were not especially receptive to this call, but, surprisingly, Benjamin was applauded by many. He left the building without being laughed at, tarred and feathered, or worse, lynched. This is a testament to his power as an orator. Once his audience awakened from the trance of his voice, they realized what Benjamin purposed was not simply impossible or quixotic but utterly ridiculous. His plea was absurd in every way one can look at it. Even if a sizable number of enslaved Black men were willing to accept these terms and fight for the Confederacy, it was far too late to organize, train even minimally, and disperse these new troops in the field in any way that would have changed the outcome of the war. Moreover, as the enslaved knew as well as the White southerners that the war was now about the disposition of slavery and that Lincoln had committed to ending it, what would they gain by fighting for their soon-to-be ex-owners, the very people who held them in bondage and was fighting a war to keep them that way? Besides, as White southerners always thought their slave population was untrustworthy (the fear of revolt was very real), how could they possibly arm them without strictly policing them in the use of those arms (not to point the arms at their former masters rather than the Union blue, how to get the arms back after the war), an unmanageable situation for any army. Third, what was the point of the war if the south freed its slaves, since the war was about the preservation of the slavocracy, the slave state? By freeing the slaves to preserve a slave state, the south had just proven that a slave state was impossible to maintain if challenged ideologically and militarily.

He left the building without being laughed at, tarred and feathered, or worse, lynched. This is a testament to his power as an orator. Once his audience awakened from the trance of his voice, they realized what Benjamin purposed was not simply impossible or quixotic but utterly ridiculous. His plea was absurd in every way one can look at it.

In two months, the south would surrender. On August 30, 1865, Benjamin, using various complicated routes and disguises to evade Union forces hellbent on arresting him not only as a traitor but as a possible conspirator in the assassination of Lincoln (he had nothing to do with it), arrived in England, where he would remain until the final few years of his life which he spent in Paris. He had every right to fear for his life from angry Unionists. Federal prosecutors wanted very much to try Davis for treason and only their fear of not finding a jury in Washington that would convict him, that would buy his argument that he was not in rebellion against the United States as he in effect renounced his citizenship by seceding, stopped them. Things were worse for Benjamin. He was not only a high-level Confederate official. He was also a Jew. He thought he would be hanged without a trial. As Traub writes, “Judah Benjamin was the most politically powerful, and arguably the most important, American Jew of the nineteenth century. He was also the most widely hated one, not only in the North but in portions of the South.”(2) Benjamin was not being fanciful or melodramatic about being lynched immediately after the war. He was being realistic.

 

 

2. Inside Out and Outside In

James Traub’s short biography of Judah Benjamin is a fine, highly accessible introduction not only to Benjamin but to the subject of southern Jews, their relationship to the Confederacy and their experience as slaveholders. Traub notes, “Benjamin was an immigrant striver, like Alexander Hamilton, born like Hamilton in the West Indies and raised in poverty.”(2) Unlike Hamilton, it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone will write a musical in Benjamin’s honor, yoked as he was to such an appalling political cause. His family left the island of St. Croix in 1813 and eventually wound up in Charleston, South Carolina by 1821. There were over 500 Jews in Charleston when the Benjamins arrived, making it the biggest Jewish community in the United States at the time. Charleston was a good place for Jews: it was the first place in the New World that permitted them to vote. Jews could own land there and worship freely.

Benjamin descended from Sephardi, Spanish Jews. He was the eldest son and treated very much like a Jewish elder son—he would be supportive of his family his entire life—and his name was certainly meant to emphasize his Jewishness. He never bothered to change it. His father was active in the Jewish community of Charleston, deep in the weeds of the practice of the religion, eventually leading a revolt against the more conservative synagogue to establish a Reform temple. His mother opened her shop on the Jewish sabbath, which annoyed the Jews in Charleston greatly. There is no evidence that Benjamin had a bar mitzvah or was confirmed in the Reform synagogue. He never practiced his religion or in any way identified with being a Jew his entire life. It is not entirely clear how much he actually knew about his religion. “Benjamin was unobservant even by the standards of a remarkably lax Jewish community [in New Orleans]” writes Traub when Benjamin lived in the Crescent City. “The only Jew more widely celebrated in New Orleans than he, Judah Touro, gave lavishly to Jewish institutions and paid for the establishment of Nefuzoth Yehudah, a synagogue for the Sephardic community which came to be known as the Touro Synagogue. Benjamin did not subscribe funds for the new temple, did not attend, and did not seek out Jewish society; he did not measure himself by the standards of Jewish success. For all erudition, Benjamin apparently knew little of Jewish law and scripture.”(33-34) But how could he not know this as his father was intensely engaged in the study and exercise of the religion? On the other hand, he never renounced his religion and was vigorously opposed to converting. His long-estranged wife gave him a Roman Catholic burial, although there is no evidence he requested it or would have wanted it.

It was to everyone that Benjamin was gifted with considerable intellect. He was sent to Yale University, that bastion of the young southern gentleman, at the age of fourteen but was forced to leave under a cloud. He eventually wound up in New Orleans where he became a huge success as a lawyer and a somewhat lesser success as a gentleman planter and slaveowner. His family had always owned slaves since his time at St. Croix¹ but as a big-time sugar plantation owner, (his plantation was called Bellechasse), he had, at one point, 140 slaves, which made him the biggest slaveholding Jew in American history. (A fact that the Nation of Islam is not going to let any Black person forget, if they can help it. Many southern Jews owned slaves, just as there were Jews who fought for the Union and opposed slavery. During the antebellum era, Judaism was not seen as being intrinsically or doctrinally anti-slavery by the public or by its adherents in the way that Quakerism was.) He would lose the plantation to cover the default of a friend whom he had indemnified. This did not bother him greatly.

Traub makes clear that Benjamin was considered White but no one ever let him forget he was a Jew.

Benjamin’s success was based on his extraordinary intellect, his prodigious memory, his ability to ingratiate himself socially, his mesmerizing voice, his unflappable nature, and his bottomless capacity for work. He wanted not only to be the landed gentry but also a power player in government. He was elected to the United States Senate as a Whig in 1852. This experience in Washington, his abilities as an administrator, led to his being selected by Jefferson Davis as the Confederacy’s attorney general, then its secretary of war—a thankless job once he realized how difficult it was to fight a war with a weak federal government that could not get individual states to think beyond their own interests—and finally secretary of state—the job he liked most.

Traub’s biography is not the first by a Jewish scholar to examine Benjamin largely through a Jewish lens. Eli N. Evans, a Jewish scholar who specializes in Jews in southern history, wrote a longer, more substantial biography entitled Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (1988). But Traub’s book is just fine for the non-specialist, non-academic who wants the details of Benjamin’s life, along with some analysis of his odd status of being an insider and an outsider simultaneously in White southern society. Traub makes clear that Benjamin was considered White but no one ever let him forget he was a Jew. The amount of anti-Semitism he faced—with considerable stoicism, it must be said—was astonishing. Nor is Traub’s book simply a redaction of Evans as there are points where he disagrees with Evans’s analysis, particularly on how much Benjamin disliked being a Jew or felt burdened by it. I highly recommend this and other books in the Yale University Jewish Lives Series. They are nifty, informative reads.

 

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¹ Eli N. Evans, Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 8.

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