Judah Philip Benjamin

An American lawyer and statesman, Judah Philip Benjamin (1811-1884) served in the Cabinet of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis until the end of the Civil War.

Judah Benjamin was born a British subject on St. Thomas, British West Indies, Aug. 11, 1811. His parents moved to Wilmington, N.C., about 1813 and later to Charleston, S. C. Benjamin attended Yale College, where his student days were dogged with rumored scandal. He read law in New Orleans and was admitted to the bar in 1832. He and his friend John Slidell published a summary of decisions made by the territorial government and Supreme Court of Louisiana which became a standard legal guide. Benjamin devoted most of his attention to commercial law and became a widely admired practitioner. He once declined appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1852, Benjamin strongly defended the South's position and was an acknowledged leader of the pro-Southern congressional faction. He resigned from the Senate in 1861 to become attorney general in the Confederate Cabinet. His brilliant legal mind made him invaluable to President Jefferson Davis, and as the bond of trust and friendship between the two deepened, Davis gave Benjamin increased responsibility. He called on him to serve as secretary of war for a brief time. But Benjamin earned Confederate congressional disapproval as secretary of war—various largely unavoidable military failures were fastened upon him—and many Southern lawmakers wanted the Jewish leader expelled from the government.

Davis yielded to pressure, yet defied it. After removing Benjamin from the war post, he appointed him secretary of state in 1862, and the choice was a wise one. Benjamin could not win foreign recognition of the Confederacy—the main goal of Confederate diplomacy; and he counseled President Davis too long in the ways of traditional negotiation. But when he realized that military reverses had cooled foreign ardor for Southern recognition, he persuaded President Davis to take a course of secondary diplomacy, which proved highly successful. Benjamin recognized that blockade-running was vital to sustaining Southern supplies, and he sent "commercial agents" to Bermuda, the West Indies, and Cuba to open ports to Confederate blockade-runners. The system, after mid-1863, was expanded and brought rich rewards to investors, shipowners, and the Confederate Army. In this area Benjamin performed his most valuable service to the South.

When the Confederacy collapsed, Benjamin escaped to England, where, bankrupt and without standing, he began a new career. Living a spartan and frugal life, he studied law and was called to the English bar in 1866. In 1872 he attained the distinguished position of queen's counsel and was recognized as one of the leaders of English law. His book, Law of Sale of Personal Property (1868), was long a standard in England and the United States.

A romantic but tragic marriage doomed Benjamin to much loneliness, since his wife chose to live most of the time in France. He died on May 6, 1884.


Further Reading on Judah Philip Benjamin

For information on Benjamin see Pierce Butler, Judah P. Benjamin (1907); Robert Douthat Meade, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman (1943); and Frank E. Vandiver, Their Tattered Flags (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Butler, Pierce, Judah P. Benjamin, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.

Evans, Eli N., Judah P. Benjamin, the Jewish Confederate, New York: Free Press, 1988.

Meade, Robert Douthat, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate statesman, New York: Arno Press, 1975.