Monday, May 6, 2024

This Day in Confederate History (Judah Benjamin, Sole Jewish Member of Davis Cabinet, Dies)

May 6, 1884— Judah Benjamin, who served close friend Jefferson Davis in three different Cabinet positions in the short-lived Confederacy, died at age 72 years old in Paris, thousands of miles and two decades removed from the slaveocracy in which he made his fortune and to which he devoted his considerable bureaucratic talents.

Few figures of the Civil War are as little known and mysterious as Benjamin. Much of that owed to his anomalous position as a Jew in a region of the country that was not merely Christian, but even overwhelmingly Protestant. 

But some of the obscurity that clings to his name derives from his actions rather than his character.

Like Aaron Burr, another enormously able politician and lawyer often perceived as traitorous, Benjamin put precious little to paper, even confessing that he had “never kept a diary or retained a copy of a letter written by me,” all aimed at frustrating attempts to ferret out the truth of his life by subsequent biographers.

In this effort he was only partly successful. While leaving little in his own hand, he couldn’t stop other people from writing about him.

And, as someone who served successively as the South’s Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State, he couldn’t evade their judgments—more often than not, negative.

“Judah Benjamin was the most politically powerful, and arguably the most important, American Jew of the nineteenth century,” wrote biographer James Traub last year. “He was also the most widely hated one, not only in the North but in portions of the South. Benjamin does not deserve our admiration; but like some other figures who have yoked their lives to deplorable causes, he nevertheless deserves our attention.”

Had Benjamin done anything other than commit himself to the “peculiar institution,” he would have long since been acclaimed a great American success story. A native of British-owned St. Croix, he emigrated with his family first to North Carolina, then Charleston, SC.

At age 14, his brilliance shone so brightly that one of the city’s leading Jewish merchants offered to pay his tuition to Yale.

Even a dismissal from the university on mysterious grounds only slowed his progress rather than stopping it, for he simply relocated to New Orleans, where he transformed himself into an attorney with a thriving practice—and, courtesy of an advantageous marriage to the Catholic Natalie St. Martin, the owner of more than 100 slaves.

In 1852, Benjamin became the first Jew not to have converted to Christianity to win election to the U.S. Senate. Only a year later, he turned down another distinction—nomination as the first Jew to the Supreme Court—probably because the high court hadn't achieved the status it came to enjoy in the 20th century.

On the other hand, serving in the Davis Cabinet was an important but thankless job:

*As Attorney General, he soon discovered he didn’t have courts to speak off:

*Later, when Davis transferred him to the War Department, he had to laugh off taunts that he was the “clerk” of his strong-willed President, only to incur the wrath of the populace when, despite his flair for paperwork, armies in the field were missing vital supplies;

*Finally, after Benjamin accepted responsibility for a problem that really his, a grateful Davis moved him over to the State Department. Here, his exploitation of cotton’s commercial value in attempting to win diplomatic recognition from Great Britain and France was “a luminous failure,” according to historian Frank Vandiver’s Their Tattered Flags: The Epic of the Confederacy (1970).

In Richmond as in New Orleans, the short, plump, but witty Secretary of State cut quite a figure on the social circuit, leading to a late-20th century description of him as "the Confederate Henry Kissinger." 

Mrs. Harrison Burton recalled in a 1911 memoir that Benjamin brought to the home of a Richmond hostess “his charming stories, his dramatic recitations of scraps of verse, and clever comments on men, women, and books.”

All to little or no avail. Benjamin not only remained what Vandiver called “the most disliked man in Richmond,” but one who, despite considerable administrative skill and his failure to practice the faith into which he was born, elicited the latent anti-Semitism of much of the populace.

Most, if not all, of the criticism that came his way was unfair. As I noted in this prior post, the War Department may have been the most unstable of all the positions in Davis' rickety Cabinet, buckling under the Confederate President's touchiness and micromanagement, not to mention its disadvantages in materials and organizing a new government from scratch.

In the waning days of the war, Benjamin was nothing if not grimly realistic, advocating manumission in exchange for any slaves who joined the Confederate Army.

Then, as Ulysses Grant broke through the defenses surrounding Richmond in early April 1865, Benjamin refused to entertain the pipe dream that the government could somehow slip out of the city and reconstitute itself further west, where surrender was not yet an actuality.

In the war’s final days, Benjamin made one of the most daring escapes of any of the Confederates, resorting to one disguise after another—and even surviving more than one shipwreck—to make his way first to Florida, then to Great Britain, to which his birth in St. Croix entitled him to citizenship.

Benjamin had much more to fear from capture than his Cabinet counterparts: according to a June 2023 article in The Tablet by Jay Solomon and Jane Singer, his creation of a spy ring starting in the North and stretching into Canada led Union investigators to tie him to the assassination plot that killed Abraham Lincoln and nearly did the same to Secretary of State William Seward, an adversary dating back to their days in the Senate.

The U.S. extradition effort was no more successful than Benjamin’s wartime campaign for “Cotton Diplomacy.” His legal skills now allowed him to flourish in Britain, where he lived out much of the remainder of his life, building a prosperous practice, even reputation for brilliance, to rival what he achieved in New Orleans.

Though the former Southern politician entertained Davis on the few times his old boss came to England, Benjamin otherwise never looked back on his old life and never returned to the United States.

Unfortunately, success at the bar seems not to have brought happiness to the domestic sphere for Benjamin. 

Though he destroyed most of the documentation about his life, enough remained to show that he subsidized separate quarters in Paris for his wife, who had long provoked gossip with her spendthrift ways and extramarital affairs.

In one of the most heated Senate debates in the late 1850s, Benjamin dismissed an abolitionist’s jibe that, as the descendant of a people who had suffered at the hands of the Pharoah, he was being hypocritical in defending slavery—that he was, in effect, “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.”

Posterity has not shrugged off that charge so easily, complicating any attempt to come to grips with why this most brilliant of attorneys could be so blind to the foremost human rights question of his time.

(For a fascinating comparison of Benjamin with a Jewish appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court who served for years, see this August 2019 blog post from The Times of Israel by Tzemach Yehudah Richter.)

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