The Forgotten Confederate Jew
How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century
Temptations is a New Orleans strip joint whose neon sign declares it “The Gentlemens’ [sic] Club in a Class By Itself.” Open noon ’til dawn, it sits on a crowded stretch of Bourbon Street between the century-old Galatoire’s restaurant and Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club. Inside Temptations, the ground-floor parlor is done up in antebellum-period décor, with a pair of grand fireplaces and crystal chandeliers. The paint on the walls cracks with antiquarian charm. At the rear of the room, red velvet-upholstered stools line a bar that serves up chilled cocktails to cut the bayou heat. The parlor is centered around a stage with a dance pole, where, during a recent late-night visit, a stripper billed as “Ryan” Lockhart was hard at work, wriggling her g-string-clad body around the head of a bald man with a fist full of money.
When Lockhart finished her routine, redonning her leopard-print brassiere and shredded black dress and joining the half-dozen other ladies working the floor, I asked if she was aware of the building’s notable history as the former home of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of state and America’s first openly Jewish senator. She was not. I told her that up the staircase to the lap-dance rooms had once ascended “the brains of the Confederacy,” the U.S. Senate’s whip-smart “Gentleman from Louisiana,” a gifted orator—the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century.
Lockhart’s ignorance was unsurprising—and not just because the exotic dancer is no Civil War buff. Benjamin has confounded even the myriad professional historians who have tried to rescue him from his obscurity as the enigma who stares out from the Confederate $2 bill. But how could so prominent a man, anointed in the moonlight-and-magnolias-besotted chronicle of the antebellum Southern aristocracy, A Class by Themselves, as “arguably the greatest of all Southerners,” be so utterly forgotten today? Temptations, I pointed out, didn’t have so much as a plaque acknowledging its building’s tremendous significance to New Orleans, Southern, and American-Jewish history.
Lockhart, having mastered her profession’s art of feigning interest in men’s minds as a way into their wallets, pressed her hand insistently to my thigh and gushed, “That explains why the place is haunted.”
Benjamin hovers like an apparition over American Jewish history. His four-story Bourbon St. townhome was erected in 1835 for him and his new bride, Natalie St. Martin, and his in-laws, French colonial aristocrats who had fled the Haitian slave revolt of 1791 for New Orleans. Benjamin had married Natalie two years earlier, when he was 21 and she just 16.
Benjamin was born a British subject on St. Croix in 1811 to a family of Sephardic Jews. In 1822, the Benjamin family immigrated to America, seeking their fortune in what was then the nation’s most Jewish city: Charleston, S.C. According to S.I. Nieman’s 1963 biography—one of a string of such scholarly tomes collecting dust on library shelves—the boy who would grow up to be one of the South’s leading defenders of its peculiar institution was welcomed to the famously beautiful port city with the grisly sight of dozens of limp black bodies dangling from gallows. A few days before the Benjamins’ arrival, sentences had been meted out in a slave revolt conspiracy organized by Denmark Vesey, a Haitian-born freedman who had hit the Charleston city lottery and, inspired by the revolution in his homeland, used his winnings to finance an ill-fated slave uprising.
As a Charleston schoolboy, Judah was adored by his teachers for his quick mind. He was packed off to Yale at age 14 where he became the sole Jew in his class. In New Haven, Judah distinguished himself as a debater, engaging the questions that he would eventually argue on the Senate floor, including “Ought the government of the U. States to take immediate measures for the Manumission of the slaves of our country?” and, ominously, “Is it probable that our country will continue united under its present form of government for a century?”
But the little big man on campus—Benjamin stood just over five feet tall—never graduated. In 1827, he was expelled from the university for “ungentlemanly conduct” of an unspecified nature. Rumors that the tempest in New Haven involved gambling, carousing, or kleptomania dogged him the rest of his life, particularly during the Civil War when the Northern press rehashed the scandal to tar the man they called the South’s “evil genius.”
Apparently ashamed to return to Charleston in disgrace, Benjamin instead headed to its bawdy sister city on the Mississippi: New Orleans, a polyglot metropolis of 50,000 divided by its central artery, Canal Street, into francophone and anglophone zones. Perhaps inspired by their own sleepless nights letting loose on Bourbon Street after a long day at the archives, myriad historians have indulged in evidence-free speculations on the debauched Big Easy antics of the young Benjamin. “Whether he also found time for the ladies and the music of Rampart Street, for the fiestas and the street dancing, no record would show,” Nieman wrote. “But for a few short years, he was a gay bachelor, and New Orleans was ‘the City of Sin.’ ” In today’s post-Stonewall hindsight, however, the scant historical record would suggest that Benjamin was, if anything, a gay bachelor in the contemporary sense of the word. Yet this doesn’t stop another biographer from speculating that Benjamin may have fathered children with a mixed-race mistress, as was common among upper-class gentlemen in antebellum New Orleans. (In these common-law marriages, the children took the father’s name, which strongly suggests that Benjamin did not engage in such heterosexual, hetero-racial liaisons.)
If Benjamin was gay, he soon had a beard. A generation after Louisiana’s acquisition by America, the territory’s French Creole elite was eager to marry its daughters off to the ascendant Americains and Benjamin, eager to move up in his latest hometown, learned French, began tutoring Natalie St. Martin in English as a second language, and married her in 1833. (He remained Jewish and she Catholic in a remarkably modern arrangement.) It was a marriage of convenience. Judah got the social legitimacy that helped him build his career first as a corporate lawyer and then as a politician as well as netting him a sizable dowry that included a pair of slaves. Natalie married a successful attorney on his way to becoming a leading statesman, a man who asked little of her in return. Natalie soon abandoned both the Bourbon St. townhouse and the whitewashed Greek Revival plantation home Benjamin built downriver in Plaquemines Parish, for the cultured life of Paris—and the attentions of a string of other men. Despite her open infidelity, Benjamin continued to support his wife’s lavish lifestyle and arrived annually to visit her and Ninette, the daughter she bore soon after the move to France.
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