Thursday, July 23, 2020
Judah Philip Benjamin 811
"Judah P Benjamin" = 56 (Full Reduction)
Judah Philip Benjamin, QC (August 11, 1811 – May 6, 1884) 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 hold a Cabinet position in North America, and the first to be elected to the United States Senate who had not renounced his faith. He successively held the Cabinet positions of Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America.
Benjamin was born to Sephardic Jewish parents from London, who had moved to St. Croix in the Danish West Indies when it was occupied by Britain during the Napoleonic Wars. Seeking greater opportunities, his family immigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Charleston, South Carolina. Judah Benjamin attended Yale College but left without graduating. He moved to New Orleans, where he read law and passed the bar.
Benjamin rose rapidly both at the bar and in politics. He became a wealthy planter and slaveowner and was elected to and served in both houses of the Louisiana legislature prior to his election by the legislature to the US Senate in 1852. There, he was an eloquent supporter of slavery. After Louisiana seceded in 1861, Benjamin resigned as senator and returned to New Orleans.
He soon moved to Richmond after Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed him as Attorney General. Benjamin had little to do in that position, but Davis was impressed by his competence and appointed him as Secretary of War. Benjamin firmly supported Davis, and the President reciprocated the loyalty by promoting him to Secretary of State in March 1862, while Benjamin was being criticized for the rebel defeat at the Battle of Roanoke Island.
As Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted to gain official recognition for the Confederacy by France and the United Kingdom, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. To preserve the Confederacy as military defeats made its situation increasingly desperate, he advocated freeing and arming the slaves late in the war, but his proposals were only partially accepted in the closing month of the war. When Davis fled the Confederate capital of Richmond in early 1865, Benjamin went with him. He left the presidential party and was successful in escaping from the mainland United States, but Davis was captured by Union troops. Benjamin sailed to Great Britain, where he settled and became a barrister, again rising to the top of his profession before retiring in 1883. He died in Paris the following year.
Early and personal life
Judah Philip Benjamin was born on August 11, 1811, in St. Croix of the Danish West Indies (today the United States Virgin Islands), a colony then occupied by the British during the Napoleonic Wars. His parents were Sephardi Jews from London, Philip Benjamin and the former Rebecca de Mendes. Philip and Rebecca had been shopkeepers and migrated to the West Indies in search of better opportunities. Rebecca's family had been prominent in Spain before being forced to leave under the Expulsion Edict of 1492.
Judah, the third of seven children, was given the same name as an older brother who died in infancy. Following a tradition adhered to by some Sephardi, he was named for his paternal grandfather, who performed the brit milah, or circumcision ceremony. The Benjamins encountered hard times in the Danish West Indies, as normal trade was blocked by the British occupation. In 1813 the Benjamin family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where they had relatives. Philip Benjamin was not financially successful there, and around 1821 moved with his family to Charleston, South Carolina. That city had the largest Jewish community in the United States and a reputation for religious tolerance. Benjamin was learned in his faith but not a successful businessman; Rebecca earned money for the family by operating a fruit stand near the harbor. Phillip Benjamin was a first cousin and business partner of Moses Elias Levy from the West Indies. Levy also immigrated to the United States, in the early 1820s.
Judah and two siblings were boarded with relatives in Fayetteville for about 18 months after the rest of the family moved to Charleston. He attended the Fayetteville Academy, a well-regarded school where his intelligence was recognized. In Charleston, his father was among the founders of the first Reform congregation in the United States. It developed practices that included shorter services conducted in English rather than in Hebrew. Benjamin was ultimately expelled from that community, as he did not keep the Sabbath. The extent of Judah's religious education is uncertain. The boy's intelligence was noted by others in Charleston, one of whom offered to finance his education.
At the age of 14, in 1825, Benjamin entered Yale College, an institution popular among white Southerners; Vice President John C. Calhoun, a South Carolinian, was among its alumni. Although Benjamin was successful as a student at Yale, he left abruptly in 1827 without completing his course of study. The reasons for this are uncertain: in 1861, when Louisiana left the Union and Benjamin resigned as a U.S. senator, an abolitionist newspaper alleged that he had been caught as a thief at Yale. He considered bringing suit for libel but litigation was impractical. In 1901, his sole surviving classmate wrote that Benjamin had been expelled for gambling. One of his biographers, Robert Meade, considered the evidence of wrongdoing by Benjamin to be "too strong to be ignored", but noted that at the time Benjamin left Yale, he was only 16 years old.
After a brief return to Charleston, Benjamin moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. According to Rabbi Bertram W. Korn's volume on that city's Jews, he "arrived in New Orleans in 1828, with no visible assets other than the wit, charm, omnivorous mind and boundless energy with which he would find his place in the sun". After working in a mercantile business, he became a clerk for a law firm, where he began to read law, studying as an apprentice. Knowledge of French was important in practicing law in Louisiana, as the state's code was (and is still) based on French and Spanish law. To earn money, he tutored French Creoles in English; he taught the language to Natalie Bauché de St. Martin on the condition that she teach him French. In late 1832, at age 21, he was admitted to the bar.
Early the following year, Benjamin married Natalie, who was Catholic and from a wealthy French Creole family. As part of her dowry, she brought with her $3,000 and two female slaves, aged 11 and 16 (together worth about $1,000). Even before the marriage, Natalie St. Martin had scandalized New Orleans society by her conduct. William De Ville, in his journal article on the Benjamin marriage contract, suggests that the "St. Martin family was not terribly distraught to be rid of their young daughter" and that "Benjamin was virtually suborned to marry [Natalie], and did so without hesitation in order to further his ambitions".
The marriage was not a success. By the 1840s, Natalie Benjamin was living in Paris with the couple's only child, Ninette, whom she raised as a Catholic.[a] Benjamin would visit them annually. While a senator, in the late 1850s he persuaded Natalie to rejoin him and expensively furnished a home in Washington for all three to live in. Natalie and their daughter soon embarked again for France. Benjamin, publicly humiliated by his failure to keep Natalie, consigned the household goods to auction. There were rumors, never substantiated, that Benjamin was impotent and that Natalie was unfaithful.
Benjamin's troubled married life has led to speculation that he was gay. Daniel Brook, in a 2012 article about Benjamin, suggests that early biographies read as though "historians are presenting him as an almost farcically stereotypical gay man and yet wear such impervious heteronormative blinders that they themselves know not what they write". These conjectures were not given scholarly weight until 2001, when in an introduction to a reprinting of Meade's biography of Benjamin, Civil War historian William C. Davis acknowledged "cloaked suggestions that he [Benjamin] was a homosexual".