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A Southern Romantic

Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate

by Eli N. Evans
The Free Press, 469 pp., $24.95

A figure of prime importance in Civil War history, one who stood at the very center of the Confederate war effort, Judah P. Benjamin has remained, for all the five books previously written about him, a shadowy and enigmatic character draped in impenetrable mystery. There are many reasons for this, but part of the responsibility was his own. Not long before his death in 1884 he wrote a would-be biographer,

I would much prefer that no “Life,” not even a magazine article should ever be written about me…. I have never kept a diary, or retained a copy of a letter written by me…. I have read so many American biographies which reflected only the passions and prejudices of their writers that I do not want to leave behind me letters and documents to be used in such a work about myself.

The latest biographer to defy Benjamin’s wish and the frustrating measures he took to fulfill it, Eli N. Evans brings to the task a new determination and a new point of view. “Part of my fascination with Judah P. Benjamin,” he writes, “comes from my own life as a Jewish Southerner…growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt and passing for white in that mysterious underland of America.” Another source of fascination was “the ways in which Jews and Southerners were alike—stepchildren of an anguished history—and yet how different.” Historians who have dismissed Benjamin’s Jewishness because he was a nonbeliever, a Confederate leader, and a one-time owner of 140 slaves, have been responsible for “the shroud of mystery that surrounds him.” Actually he was steeped in Jewish culture, though he remained “a Jew of the head, not the heart.” Born in the British West Indies in 1811, reared in Charleston and growing to manhood in New Orleans, two of the largest Jewish communities in the country at that time, he was never permitted to forget his Jewishness. And this in an era when anti-Semitism was mounting toward a climax during the Civil War.

Yet in spite of that, Judah P. Benjamin, in his biographer’s opinion, “achieved greater political power than any other Jew in the nineteenth century—perhaps even in all American history.” Before the war came he was twice elected senator from Louisiana and became, some thought, the most powerful speaker for the Southern cause in that body, as well as its first Jewish member. President Millard Fillmore offered him appointment as ambassador to Spain (which had expelled his Sephardic ancestors) and later a seat on the US Supreme Court, both of which honors he declined. In the Confederate government he served throughout its existence successively as attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state, and in those offices sat at the very nerve center of events shaping American destiny. He must therefore, says Eli Evans, “stand as a symbol of American democracy and its openness to religious minorities” as well as “the main beneficiary of that [nineteenth-century Jewish] emancipation and its most visible symbol in America.” Historians would call him “the counterpart on the North American continent” of Disraeli, his British contemporary. At the same time he was the most convenient target for anti-Semitism.

Next in importance to placing Benjamin as a Jew is the biography’s exploration of the complex relationship between Judah Benjamin and Jefferson Davis, who was just three years his senior. In its main portions, those treating the war years and before, the book is as much about Davis as about Benjamin. For Evans “they are twin pieces of a puzzle, together less of a mystery than apart.” Or from another angle, “Benjamin becomes as it were a lens through which one can better focus on and understand Jefferson Davis.” Between them lay sharp contrasts and subtle similarities. Davis was the rural, physical, outdoors, military man, a mixture of Baptist and Catholic, with family ties to the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Benjamin was urban, intellectual, an indoorsman, the Jewish son of immigrant parents who did not arrive in the United States (from the British West Indies) until 1813. Of the parallels between the two, some proved divergent, some convergent. Both men were “raised as outsiders and bred to suspicion,” Benjamin as the son of Charleston fruit vendors, Davis as the son of small farmers who, for a while, worked in the fields. In her memoirs, Mrs. Davis wrote that the two men “had the same tireless mental energy, the same quick perception, the same nervously excitable tempers.” Both had suffered painful personal tragedies, and there were parallels in their relations to parents, to women, and to children. Both were in love with the ghosts of early marriages. Mrs. Davis thought that they “were too much alike, in many respects, to be at first very good friends.”

Varina Davis knew both men better than anyone else did and was indispensable in making their intimate collaboration possible. The two volumes of her memoirs1 record many of her insights. “The story then,” writes Evans, “is three-cornered, a triangle with Varina Davis as the bridge between an ailing President and his Jewish jack-of-all-trades. This book is the first to treat the three of them together.” They were, indeed, much together, with the Davis White House “a second home” for Benjamin, who was closeted with the President ten to fourteen hours a day. Before the war, while fellow members of the US Senate, they were both ambitious, “both quick at repartee,” and at times in disagreement. During the war Varina watched, sometimes with bated breath, while “hot words in glacial, polite phrases passed between them.” She recalled a dangerous clash between the two men that had occurred on the floor of the Senate in 1858.

In a heated exchange, Davis angrily charged that Benjamin’s arguments were those of a “paid attorney” serving private interests. Benjamin promptly challenged him to a duel. Fellow senators were aghast. Besides the likelihood that such an encounter would have been fatal to Benjamin, the behavior of both men had been so utterly uncharacteristic. For whether “before juries or generals or kings, Judah P. Benjamin appeared serene and unflappable, his smile reflecting to observers almost a nonchalance,” and Jefferson Davis was ever “a contained and controlled military man,” who conducted exchanges “on far greater matters without a flicker of anger.” While it was unlike Davis to back down, he fortunately realized he was in error and apologized immediately: “I have been wholly wrong,” he said. Benjamin knew his man. “No nobler gentleman,” he once declared, “ever drew breath.”

Very early in Judah Benjamin’s life a pattern of humiliation took shape that was to be repeated over and over to the end of his days. At fourteen the bright youngster was packed off to remote Yale by his shopkeeping parents in Charleston. Poor, small, underage, and provincial, the boy quickly took the highest rank in his class and received a prize, a book inscribed by the president, for excellence in scholarship. Then, after only two years, he suddenly left Yale under circumstances that remain a mystery. Nothing in Yale records indicates why he left or even that he was asked to leave—there is only a letter from him to the president written “with shame and diffidence,” to ask forgiveness and readmission, but no reply to the letter. A former tutor much later mentioned “many college pranks” to which he closed his eyes out of fondness for his pupil.

Back at Charleston, a failure at sixteen, a disappointment to parents, siblings, and to himself, he eventually set forth in 1828 with five dollars in his pocket to seek his fortune in New Orleans. That was to come in the practice of law, but only after he mastered the French language and the Napoleonic Code and published a law book that brought him more than local fame and fortune. Before the fortune was made, and in the midst of his struggle, he married Natalie St. Martin, a pretty daughter of the French Creole Catholic aristocracy of New Orleans. He intensified his struggle to rise, but as his practice grew his marriage declined.

A poor Jew marrying into the well-to-do Catholic world, he was courting humiliation. That took the form of Natalie’s shameless infidelities and the gossip that accompanied them. He sought to reclaim her by outdoing the planter aristocrats with extravagance and the rewards of respectability and public office. Crowning these was Bellechasse, a super-plantation with slaves and a mansion of twenty rooms surrounded by double balconies and a veranda supported by twenty-eight columns, and replete with crystal chandeliers, silver-plated door-knobs, Florentine statuary, a mahogany staircase spiraling up the middle, and a view of the Mississippi River. Natalie nevertheless packed up their only child and sailed for Europe to settle in Paris and continue her adventures on the international scene.

The deserted husband sold the plantation after a ruinous flood and returned to the city to pursue an intensified law business and political career, both of which prospered phenomenally. The New Orleans Delta, which had ridiculed Benjamin’s candidacy for the Senate before he was elected in 1852, soon changed its tune:

Though not yet forty, he has reached the topmost round of the ladder of distinction as an advocate and counselor in this state…. He has a fine imagination, an exquisite taste, great power of discrimination, a keen, subtle logic, excellent memory, admirable talent of analysis.

The editor concluded his encomium by saying that the senator visited Paris every year “to fulfill all the duties of an active partisan, of a public-spirited citizen, of a liberal gentleman, with a taste for elegance, the social pleasures and refinements of life.” Natalie and their daughter, Ninette, the real object of these annual trips, were not mentioned.

After a triumphant first term in the Senate, he was reelected in 1858 and now seemed assured of a secure and brilliant future. With the promise of White House balls and diplomatic receptions on the crest of the Washington social whirl, Benjamin lured Natalie back from Paris. In preparation for her coming he sank a fortune in decorating a house with elegant furniture, paintings, crystal, silver, and china and hiring a retinue of servants for the social entertaining he planned. But the homecoming quickly turned into a nightmare. The Congressional ladies paid one formal call, took a look, and cut Natalie cold. No invitations came in, and the gossip mills worked overtime. Natalie and Ninette returned to Paris, never to come back. Judah left town, while the Washington elite picked over the ruins of his dreams at a public auction of the mansion’s treasures that climaxed the most pathetic of his humiliations. As Eli Evans writes, “Leaving his Washington mansion was another form of starting over again after a traumatic experience. It was Yale, Charleston, New Orleans, Bellechasse, and Washington all over again.”

  1. 1

    Varina Howell Davis, Jefferson Davis, Ex-President of the Confederate States of America: A Memoir by His Wife, 2 vols. (1890).

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