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Judah Philip Benjamin

The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger: The National Jewish Weekly

Judah Philip Benjamin 

BUT head and shoulders above any Jew who ever lived in this country stood Judah Philip Benjamin. His life reads like one long romance. His parents were on their way to the United States when their vessel, being intercepted by an English man-of-war (our second war with England) put into the Island of St. Croix. Here, on English territory, Benjamin drew his first breath. The family moved to Wilmington, thence to Fayetteville, N. C., whence young Judah was sent to Yale. After graduation he settled in New Orleans and took up the practice of law. His rise at the bar was rapid, and' his fame as a lawyer soon became national. About this time the Government retained him as counsel in the Lower California land case, for which he received a fee of $25,000, the largest ever paid in this country up to that time. So general was the recognition of his legal talents that President Pierce offered him a seat on the bench of the United States Supreme Court. This he declined, for “Mr. Benjamin, of Louisiana," stood higher than any mere Supreme Court justice. When President Tyler’s cabinet was in the course of formation his advisers suggested him as a member. Benjamin’s forte lay, so to speak, in the way he presented his case. The first time he appeared in the Supreme Court of the United States, as the justices retired, Judge Jere Black leaned over and whispered to the opposing counsel, “The little Jew from Louisiana has stated you out of court." In 1852 and again Benjamin came from Louisiana, in 1858 Louisiana sent him to the United States Senate. ln 1856 Benjamin formed part of a small group of Senators that helped bring about the nomination of Buchanan for President. In the Senate he soon became a leader in debate, and as an orator he stood second to none. His farewell address, before alluded to, in the Spring of 1861, ranks as a masterpiece. Two days and nights were consumed in its delivery and its reception was remarkable in that conclave of grave and reverend statesmen, even Charles Sumner, Benjamin's most bitter opponent, being moved by it.

His Service To The Confederacy

BENJAMIN received the first appointment in President Davis’ cabinet, assuming his port folio about a week before Secretaries Mallory and Reagan, of the Navy and Post office Departments. The last-named took office March 4 and 6, 1861, respectively. There were only five port folios in the Confederate cabinet, and Benjamin held three of them, with honor to himself and satisfaction to his chief. Attorney General from February 25 to September 17, 1861; Secretary of “far, September 17, 1861, to March 18, 1862; Acting Secretary of War, March 18-23, 1862; Secretary of State, March 18 to the end of the war. As to his resignation from the Secretary ship of War, thereby hangs a tale. 1862, General Huger, in command of Roanoke Island, called for powder and received none. A second and third requisition being also unhonored, Roanoke Island fell and, in response to Huger's complaint, Congress had a committee investigate. Benjamin's testimony took but a few seconds in the telling—the powder had not been forthcoming because the Government had none to send, there being a temporary shortage of that munition. The committee being about to rise, Benjamin asked what would be the effect upon the people and the cause if the truth were known. The consensus of opinion was that the result might be very damaging to the Confederacy. At the suggestion of Benjamin, the committee's report censured him, practically calling for his resignation. He resigned forthwith, but continued to act for five days. President Davis at once made him Secretary of State and for the period mentioned he filled two cabinet positions. The true inwardness of this remained unknown until 1887 when Colonel Charles Marshall, General Lee’s military secretary, told it and other secret history of the Confederacy at the ceremonies incident to laying the cornerstone Of the Lee monument. The writer called on Marshall and asked him did he mind giving his authority for this statement. Marshall replied he had the circumstance direct from Benjamin in a letter some time before. It is probable that this action on Benjamin’s part has no parallel in the history of nations. Davis' insistence upon keeping in office a man who, apparently, had proved either false or unfit, created much dissatisfaction, and what feeling existed by reason thereof was caused by the action of the President and not on account of Benjamin being a Jew.

His Sense Of Justice

A STORY, illustrative of Benjamin's strict sense of justice and appreciation of the eternal fitness of things, was told the writer in May last at the dedication of the tablet before referred to, the narrator being a son of Senator Mason, who, as presiding officer of the United States Senate, had filled the chair when the electoral vote of the Buchanan election had been counted by Congress. The returns of the State of Wisconsin were incomplete, some indorsement on the envelope having been overlooked. Mason refused to throw out the vote, reserving his opinion. Buchanan's vote proved so decisive that a ruling on the point did not matter. A few years later President Davis, Benjamin and Toombs spent an evening at Mason's house in Richmond. The counting of this vote being mentioned, Toombs half jocularly remarked: “Mason, you are a damned coward; you had a splendid chance to make a precedent in the counting of Buchanan's vote and you were afraid to do it." Young Mason, a mere child, but new a man of nearly seventy, resented this reflection on his father and started toward Toombs. Mason told his son to leave the room. “No, sir," asserted Benjamin, “the boy is right. Toombs, you must apologize.” And it took a man to tell Toombs the most rabid of fire-eaters, that he owed anyone an apology. This occurrence has never before been told in print. When Davis and the other members of his cabinet left Richmond on that fateful April 2, 1865. Benjamin did not accompany them, but joined the party in Danville. When they separated Benjamin made his way to the coast of Florida, took an open boat for the West Indies, and, after experiencing a series of adventures holding in them selves the making of a book, eventually arrived in England. After a short probationary period he took up the practice of law. He soon became a Queen's counsellor, which entitled him to argue cases before the House of Lords, the tribunal of last resort in England. No other man not a He held that, having been born on St. Croix, and never having relinquished his citizenship, he was an English subject. No one disputed this claim. On one occasion, as Benjamin argued a case before the House of Lords, someone. supposed to be Lord Cairns, who always showed a marked antipathy for him, ejaculated the single word "nonsense," referring to some statement made by the counsellor. Benjamin folded up his papers and stalked out of the chamber. The Lords sent him an apology and asked him to return and complete his brief. Benjamin refused to do so, but sent his clerk, who finished the reading which, incidentally, won the case.

His Success At The British Bar

BENJAMIN’S success in law in England proved phenomenal. In sixteen years of practice he earned $720,000, and when forced to retire by order of his physician. he returned to his clients the handsome sum of $100,000 which had been paid him as retainers. The entire ‘bar of England tendered him a banquet. Benjamin never traveled without a copy of Horace and Tennyson. He died in Paris, May 6, 1884. While not a matter of common knowledge, it may prove of interest to some to know that Julius Kruttschnitt, of New York, chairman of the board of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, is Benjamin’s nephew.

As in the case of many another Jew who reached great prominence, there be those who say the subject of this sketch was not a professing Jew. Careful search proves this statement to be without foundation of fact. The late Dr. Isaac M. Wise tells in his “Reminiscences” of an interesting discussion between Daniel Webster, Mathew Fontaine Maury, Benjamin and himself, in which Webster claimed that all four of them were practically universalists. Benjamin distinctly protested against this, saying his Jewish religious views could not be described in that manner. When a petition on behalf of American Jewish citizens protesting against the anti-Semitic discriminations of Switzerland was presented to the United States Senate in 1854, Benjamin acted as spokesman of American Jewry by laying the paper before that body. Dr. Isaac M. Wise, some years ago, told the writer that, when Benjamin traveled West incident to the California land cases, he delivered an address in the synagogue in San Francisco on the Day of Atonement, 1860. When the Richmond rabbi, M. J. Michelbacher, wished to secure a furlough for Jewish soldiers to come to that city for the Fall holidays, 1864, he endeavored to have the request pass through Benjamin’s hands, although he had no connection whatever with the War Department, showing that the minister regarded Benjamin as a representative Jew. The late Ellis Bottigheimer positively asserted that he had seen Benjamin in a Richmond synagogue, where he was “called up” to the reading of the Torah. The Secretary had a very busy time in this city. President Davis had a complimentary but uncomfortable habit of passing to him all matters which belonged to no particular department. Frequently Benjamin remained at his desk from 8 o'clock one morning until 2 or 3 the next. This gave him little time for social relaxation among Jews or any others. This failure to mingle with his people coupled with the fact that he married a Catholic and that an attempt was made to have him accept the ministrations of a priest when unconscious on his death bed, are the only arguments as to his not being a Jew. When a young man at Yale a Hebrew psalter was one of his cherished possessions.


Isaac Landman, The American Hebrew & Jewish Messenger: The National Jewish Weekly, Volume 109, No. 20 (New York: The American Hebrew Publishing Company, 1921), 492, 526. 

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