Every once in a while I stumble upon the story of a remarkable individual. Such a person was Judah Benjamin. Born in 1811 in St. Croix, Benjamin’s family moved first to North Carolina and then to Charleston, S.C., home to the largest Jewish community in the United States at the time, where his father was among the founders of the first reform congregation in the United States.1
Benjamin came to New Orleans in 1832, where he made his career and married Natalie St. Martin, the daughter of a leading Creole Catholic family, who had hired him to tutor her in English. While Benjamin built a grand home at Belle Chasse Plantation in Plaquemines Parish, where he became a path-breaking sugar planter, his wife moved to Paris with their only child, where she remained the rest of her life, receiving annual visits from her husband.
Judah Philip Benjamin was a lawyer and politician who was a United States Senator from Louisiana, a Cabinet officer of the Confederate States and, after his escape to the United Kingdom at the end of the American Civil War, an English barrister. Benjamin was the first Jew to be elected to the United States Senate who had not renounced that faith, and to hold a Cabinet position in North America. He was successively the Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America.
As historian Eli N. Evans author of the most prominent biography of Benjamin entitled Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate analyzes, “Benjamin served Jefferson Davis as his Sephardic ancestors had served the kings of Europe for hundreds of years . . .”
Benjamin was a great legal mind, orator, and “the brains of the Confederacy,” at “the very center of Southern history,” “in the eye of the storm that was the Civil War,” who remained in the “shadow” but took the fall as the Confederacy failed in the war.
Benjamin adhered to Southern norms including support of slavery, being a plantation owner and slaveholder. As Robert Rosen author of The Jewish Confederates notes, “Judah Benjamin is a great example of how Southern Jews were assimilated into Southern Society. But of course they accepted all the values of that society, including slavery.”
After the war, Benjamin escaped to England. On January 13, 1866, Benjamin enrolled at Lincoln’s Inn, and soon thereafter was admitted to read law under Charles Pollock, son of Chief Baron Charles Edward Pollock, who took him as a pupil at his father’s direction. Benjamin, despite his age of 54, was initially required, like his thirty-years-younger peers, to attend for twelve terms, that is, three years. According to Benjamin’s obituary in The Times, though, “the secretary of the Confederacy was dispensed from the regular three years of unprofitable dining, and called to the bar” on June 6, 1866.
In his 1907 biography, Pierce Butler noted how Benjamin was able to transfer his former success and start fresh as a hugely successful barrister in England after the war, writing a legal volume, “Benjamin on Sales,” that Justice Ginsburg described as a “near-instant classic”.2
1 My interest in Judaism was peaked recently. My oldest daughter, Madison, had recently returned from a business trip to Tel Aviv. There she learned that the name “Gaffney” is a common Jewish name. So we consulted Wikipedia, which advised as follows: “In Hebrew context the surname Gaffney (Hebrew: גפני, alternative English spellings: Gafni/Gafny) is used for Jewish people whose ancestors were wine makers as “Geffen” (גפן) is the Hebrew word for vitis.”
2 This writing was taken in large part from: https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/judah-p-benjamin-and-the-jewish-goal-of-whiteness-in-the-antebellum-south. Jan 11, 2019, 8:23 AM, and Wikipedia.
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