Judah Philip Benjamin (August 6, 1811 - May 6, 1884) was a British-American politician and lawyer, who served as a representative in the Louisiana State Legislature, as U.S. Senator for Louisiana, in three successive cabinet posts in the government of the Confederate States of America, and as a distinguished barrister and Queen's Counsel in England. He was the second Jew (after David L. Yulee of Florida) to serve as a U.S. Senator and the first in the cabinet of a North American government, and had the opportunity to be the first Jewish nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, though he declined the position.
Family and Early Life
Benjamin was born a British subject in Christiansted, Saint Croix, in the Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands), to Sephardic Jewish parents, Phillip Benjamin and Rebecca de Mendes. He emigrated with his parents to the U.S. several years later and grew up in North and South Carolina. In 1824, his father was one of the founders of the "Reformed Society of Israelites for Promoting True Principles of Judaism According to Its Purity and Spirit" in Charleston, the first Reform congregation in the United States. He attended Fayetteville Academy in North Carolina, and at the age of fourteen he entered Yale Law School, though he left without a degree. In 1832 he moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he continued his study of law, was admitted into the bar that same year, and entered private practice as a commercial lawyer.
In 1833 Benjamin made a strategic marriage to Natalie St. Martin, of a prominent New Orleans Creole family; the marriage does not seem to have been a happy one. He established a sugar plantation in Belle Chasse, Louisiana, and both the plantation and his legal practice prospered. In 1842, his only child, Ninette, was born, and Natalie took the girl and moved to Paris, where she would remain for most of the remainder of her life. The same year, he was elected to the lower house of the Louisiana State Legislature as a Whig, and in 1845 he served as a member of the state Constitutional Convention. In 1850 he sold his plantation and its 150 slaves; he never again owned any slaves.
By 1852, Benjamin's reputation as a eloquent speaker and subtle legal mind was sufficient to win him selection by the state legislature to the U.S. Senate; he took office on March 4, 1853. During his first year as a Senator, he challenged another young Senator, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, to a duel over a perceived insult on the Senate floor; Davis apologized, and the two began a close friendship.
He quickly gained a reputation as one of the great orators of the Senate, and in 1854 Franklin Pierce offered him nomination to a seat on the Supreme Court, which he declined. He was a noted advocate of the interests of the South, and his most famous exchange on the Senate floor was related to both his religion and the issue of slavery: Benjamin Wade of Ohio accused him of being an "Israelite in Egyptian clothing," and he replied that, "It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain."
He was again selected to serve as Senator for the term beginning in 1859, but this time as a Democrat. During the 34th through 36th Congresses he was chairman of the Committee on Private Land Claims. Benjamin resigned his seat on February 4, 1861, due to the secession of Louisiana from the Union.
Davis appointed Benjamin to be the first Attorney General of the Confederacy on February 25, 1861, remarking later that he chose him for the position because he "had a very high reputation as a lawyer, and my acquaintance with him in the Senate had impressed me with the lucidity of his intellect, his systematic habits, and capacity for labor."
In September of the same year, he became the acting Secretary of War, and in November he was confirmed in the post. He became a lightning rod for popular discontent with the Confederacy's military situation, and came to quarrel particularly with the Confederate Generals P.G.T. Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson. The criticism came to a head over the loss of Roanoke Island to the Union without a fight in February 1862. Rather than publicly reveal the pressing shortage of military manpower that had led to the decision not to defend Roanoke, he accepted Congressional censure for the action without protest and resigned his position. As a reward for his loyalty, Davis appointed him Secretary of State in March 1862.
Benjamin's foremost goal as Secretary of State was to draw the United Kingdom into the war on the side of the Confederacy. In 1864, as the South's military position became increasingly desperate, he came to publicly advocate a plan where any slave who was willing to bear arms for the Confederacy would be emancipated and inducted into the military; this would have the dual effect of removing the greatest obstacle in British public opinion to an alliance with the Confederacy, popular aversion to slavery, and easing the shortage of soldiers that crippled the South's military efforts. Robert E. Lee came to be a proponent of the scheme as well, but it faced stiff opposition from traditionalists, and was never put into effect before the Confederacy's collapse.
In the immediate aftermath of the end of the war, an unfounded rumor, tinged with anti-Semitism, that Benjamin had masterminded the assassination of Lincoln through his intelligence apparatus became popular. Fearing that he could never receive a fair trial in the atmosphere of the time, he burnt his papers and fled to England under a false name.
In June 1866, he was called to the bar in England, the beginning of a successful and lucrative second career as a barrister. In 1868 he published Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, which came to be regarded as one of the classics of its field. In 1872 he became Queen's Counsel. He died in Paris on May 6, 1884, and was interred at Père Lachaise cemetery under the name of Philippe Benjamin.