Judah P. Benjamin: Able Statesman, Forgotten Patriot

judah p benjamin

If you showed the average American pictures of famous figures from Confederate States of America, there is a good chance many would recognize Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Pressed further, some may even identify Alexander Stephens. All were influential men, and important to the establishment and development of the Confederacy. However, none of them assisted the Confederate cause in the same way Judah Philip Benjamin did.

In many ways, Benjamin defied the prevailing myths about the Confederacy. A Jew who was born to British parents on the island of St. Croix, Benjamin emerged from humble means to become one of the most prominent figures in the Confederate government. His wisdom was unparalleled, he was very respected by his peers, and many of his viewpoints were entirely prophetic. Still, he is now all but forgotten.

Formerly a Whig, Benjamin served Louisiana in the state legislature and the United States Senate. Breaking with his party in 1856, as a Democrat he became one of the most esteemed members of his party. Also a distinguished and talented lawyer, he was known to draw huge crowds into courtrooms. In the 1860 case of United States v. Castillero, Benjamin gave a long-winded speech that spanned the course of six days. New York Times reporter remarked that Benjamin “is making this terribly tedious case interesting, and reducing the complications of its history to its lowest terms.”[1]

When Benjamin decided to resign from the Senate in 1861, he did so with a somber heart. Still, he remained steadfast in his ideological principles. Benjamin articulated that Louisiana held the same powers as the other parties to the Constitution, and contended that secession was the defensible instrument of any American state. In his farewell address to the Senate, he remarked:

“Sir, it has been urged, on more than one occasion in the discussions here and elsewhere, that Louisiana stands on an exceptional footing. It has been said that whatever may be the rights of the States that were original parties to the Constitution—even granting their right to resume for sufficient cause, those restricted powers which they delegated to the General Government, in trust for their own use and benefit—still Louisiana can have no such right…The rights of Louisiana as a sovereign State are those of Virginia. No more, no less. Let those who deny her right to resume delegated powers, successfully refute the claim of Virginia to the same right, in spite of her express reservation made and notified to her sister States when she consented to enter the Union.”

Benjamin went on to defend secession as a device that would allow an honest people to escape from despotism and servitude:

“And, sir, permit me to say that of all the causes which justify the action of the Southern States I know none of greater gravity and more alarming magnitude than that now developed of the denial of the right of secession. A pretension so monstrous as that which perverts a restricted agency, constituted by sovereign States for common purposes, into the unlimited despotism of the majority, and denies all legitimate escape from such despotism when powers not delegated are usurped, converts the whole constitutional fabric into the secure abode of lawless tyranny and degrades sovereign States into Provincial dependencies.”[2]

Echoing the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, Benjamin considered the Constitution a compact – a utilitarian construct that did not impose a superlative authority over the states.

He invoked the principles inherent in the Declaration of Independence, which established that a free people have a moral right to “throw off” a tyrannical government and “provide new Guards for their future security.” Applying this principle to the political struggle of his time, Benjamin understood that Jefferson’s words should not be considered in vain.

Despite his philosophical aptitude, what Benjamin did may have been more important than what he thought.

Originally appointed as the Confederate Attorney General, Davis’ high regard for Benjamin prompted a transition to Secretary of War in late 1861. Impressing many with his skills as a public official, in 1862 he was promoted again to perhaps the most important position in the Confederate government – Secretary of State.

In that office, Benjamin’s biggest political goal was to obtain recognition of the Confederate States of America by Britain. By doing so, Benjamin would lay the potential foundation for fiscal and military support, adding a remarkably powerful ally that seemed sympathetic to southern interests. The tactic made sense – just as the southern states suffered under the protectionist policies of the north, Britain also reaped the consequences. With southerners being forced to buy from the north, the cheap southern cotton would no longer fuel the industrial fortitude of Europe.

In 1855, David Christy published Cotton is King, a famous work that emphasized the paramount importance of the European cotton trade. Believing that the suppression of cotton trade would be devastating to the European economy, many were persuaded – Benjamin among them – that England would jump at the chance to reinstate favorable trade conditions with the south.

Trade was not the only issue dividing Britain from the Union. During the American Civil War, several northern politicians made threats toward the British because of their proclivities toward the Confederacy. At one point, war between Britain and the Union even seemed plausible, and London columnists wrote of the prospects. Truly, many historians have ignored the repeated threats made against British by Union politicians and northern press.[3] In 1864, Benjamin remarked:

“The administration papers in the United States, by their party cry of “one war at a time,” leave England with little room for doubt as to the settled ulterior motive of that Government to attack England as soon as disengaged from the struggle with us.”

Benjamin saw this schism as an opportunity to disunite Britain’s ties with the Union, forging a new political alliance that would aid the south in its quest for autonomy and self-government.

Unfortunately, by this time the British had firmly decided not to take sides in the conflict following the Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. When Benjamin learned that the British forbade its subjects to serve in the Confederate Army, he banished them from Confederate territory. Biographer Eli Evans wrote that this action, while Davis was in Tennessee, illustrated that Benjamin served as an “acting president” of sorts.[4] In a way, Benjamin was America’s first Jewish president.

While Benjamin cautioned against it, the Confederate government instituted an embargo on cotton against nations that had not recognized the legitimacy of the government. Warning Davis not to do so, Benjamin argued that the policy would disrupt beneficial foreign relations and help the Lincoln administration by assisting its blockade of southern ports.

Even while some other officials opposed him, Benjamin tirelessly advocated for a policy that would free slaves in return for military service. While he initially feared it wasn’t feasible to employ emancipated men in the Confederate army because of its potential cost, he agreed in principle and acquiesced to those concerns. In 1864, when Confederate General Patrick Cleburne made a bold proposal to officially enact the policy, Benjamin supported it fully.

When various proposals to enlist slaves in the army in return for emancipation crossed the desk of Davis, he rejected them all until it was too late. Davis, who favored a gradual emancipation plan, was not yet convinced. Urging Davis to reconsider, Benjamin made several crafty attempts to turn Davis to his viewpoint, even during the last stages of the war. Benjamin even sent a commission to Paris and London to announce a Confederate emancipation plan in exchange for recognition by the two governments. By that time it was too late, and Davis’ eventual consent to an emancipation plan was too ill-timed to make the policy effectual or affect the outcome of the war.

Still, Benjamin’s involvement in this area dispels the myth that no one in the south was concerned about the condition of slaves, and the fallacy that that manumission was not considered at all.

Beyond this, Benjamin worked ingeniously to hatch plots that would undermine the Lincoln administration from within the Union. In one case, he helped organize a program that sent former Union Secretary of the Interior Jacob Thompson to Canada, where he instigated various campaigns of resistance against the northern states. During a time of much turmoil and loss, Benjamin understood the importance of covert operations in war.

In the last days of the war, he successfully escaped to Europe and evaded the harsh Union prosecution against Confederate officials. Benjamin continued his trade as a lawyer, and wrote columns on international affairs for The Daily Telegraph, which became London’s most influential newspaper. He corresponded with and met Davis again upon the travels of the former president, but Benjamin never returned to the United States.

Sometimes called “the brains of the Confederacy,” Benjamin was an impressive figure in an important time. While most of his aims were never actualized, his ideas remain as influential remnants of a forgotten history that should be uncovered at every opportunity. When considering those who propelled the just, honest, and pure principles that define the south, one cannot list many individuals without first mentioning Judah P. Benjamin.

[1] Quoted in Robert Douthat Meade, Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001), 129.

[2] Farewell Speech of Judah P. Benjamin of Louisiana on the Occasion of his Withdrawal from the United States Senate, in The Politics of Dissolution, Edited by Marshall DeRosa (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1988), 289-296.

[3] Duncan Andrew Campbell, English Opinion and the American Civil War (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003), 114.

[4] Eli Evans, Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate (New York: First Free Press, 1988), 240-241.

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