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 …

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Letters

The First Jewish Senator December 8, 1988