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The Forgotten Confederate Jew

How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century

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(Collage Margarita Korol; original images Yale University Library)
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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.”

Benjamin hovers like an apparition over American Jewish history

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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PhillipNagle says:

Most of the history generated about early American Jews come from Jews, many who have an agenda as to what a Jew is supposed to be like. As proof of this I turn to another obscure Jew, Uriah Levy. In the first half of the nineteenth century the highest rank attainable in the US Navy was commodore and Uriah Levy, a Jew was a commodore. But Jewish historians tend to ignore this man who doesn’t fit their mold.

41953 says:

Benjamin is not forgotten and neither is Levy. You can read about both in any Jewish encyclopedia or in the Dictionary of Jewish Biography.

41953 says:

PS Benjamin was not much of a Jew either. He was the victim of anti-Semitic atttacks during his years in the Confederate government, but in his personal life, there was nothing Jewish about him.

I wouldn’t call Benjamin the archvillain of “All Other Nights” _ far from it. At that Passov er seder, he tries to talk the lead character’s uncle out of the plan to assassinate Lincoln, which the lead character is under orders to foil by poisoning him.

p.s. And I’ve heard Dara Horn say that the story of Benjamin’s escape to Britain is too amazing for fiction.

rw970 says:

The United States Constitution does in fact permit people born abroad to be elected President, so long as they were citizens at “the time of the adoption of this Constitution.” See Article II, Section I, Cl. 5. Alexander Hamilton was a delegate to the Convention, and born in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Jonathan foreman says:

Judah P Benjamin is hardly forgotten or unknown. For a fascinating account of his life and clever diplomacy check out Amanda Foreman’s recent bestseller “A World on Fire: Britain’s crucial role in the American Civil War”

Judah P. Benjamin is also remembered in national awards given by both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He is the namesake of a Chapter of the UDC and Camp of the SCV.
Mr. Brook is certainly less than gracious in his treatment of J.P.Benjamin, the UDC and SCV.

Daniel Brook says:

The crux of
my argument is not that Judah P. Benjamin has been entirely forgotten, just
that his remembrance today is incommensurate with his historical importance. As
for UDC’s history on racial issues, I think the record is clear. I’m sure many
members thought their early-twentieth-century efforts to educate school
children about the history of the Klan and to erect “mammy memorials”
in every state in the Union were admirable. In hindsight, I think I stand
squarely in the center of American public opinion in finding such efforts
disturbing.

Avinoam Sharon says:

Forgotten? Lawyers and the publisher of his still-in-print book would disagree:

“The 8th edition [2010] of Benjamin’s Sale of Goods
offers a one stop source to all the elements, principles, legislation
and case law surrounding sale of goods not just in the UK but
internationally, Benjamin’s Sale of Goods has firmly established itself
as the only title you need on sale of goods.
Frequently cited in court, its depth and coverage makes Benjamin an essential reference tool in any commercial law library.”

Hardly a description of obscurity.

Avinoam Sharon says:

Forgotten? Lawyers and the publisher of his still-in-print book would disagree:

“The 8th edition [2010] of Benjamin’s Sale of Goods
offers a one stop source to all the elements, principles, legislation
and case law surrounding sale of goods not just in the UK but
internationally, Benjamin’s Sale of Goods has firmly established itself
as the only title you need on sale of goods.
Frequently cited in court, its depth and coverage makes Benjamin an essential reference tool in any commercial law library.”

Hardly a description of obscurity.

Ben Russell says:

I expected to see some negativity in the comments (due only to the subject being related to the Confederacy), but I did not expect so many people denying his relative obscurity when compared to other figures of the time. I understand having a generally contrary nature (I have one myself), but one cannot deny the fact that more is spoken of concerning other less influential figures of the time. Rather than critiquing, can we not instead recognize the value of an article that introduces many to an enigmatic Jewish man of history?

Aside from that, I have to say, I have heard and read of Benjamin in passing, but I’ve never read anything that seemed to treat him with as much care and intrigue as you have presented here. I have already shared this article with others.

Hannah says:

It isn’t just the non-Jewish community that has forgotten him. At my children’s Jewish religious school there is a whole chapter and much discussion about General Grant and his order to discriminate against Jews. But my children heard nothing about Benjamin, nothing about Jewish slaveholders and nothing about the arguments back and forth among our American rabbis of the Civil War era about whether slavery was immoral or not. Why do we cherish the stories where we are the victims and forget the stories where we were the perpetrators? When we don’t tell both sides, our children come to conclude we are brainwashing them, not educating them.

Interesting article, Jews in the south at the time of the civil war threw in with the south, their friends and neighbors. Nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to Jews I’d take Lee over Grant any day. BTW The spoiled little brats who heckled Netanyahu were part of the JVP. The most anti-Jewish organization this side of hamas and the einzatzgruppen.

Interesting article, Jews in the south at the time of the civil war threw in with the south, their friends and neighbors. Nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to Jews I’d take Lee over Grant any day. BTW The spoiled little brats who heckled Netanyahu were part of the JVP. The most anti-Jewish organization this side of hamas and the einzatzgruppen.

Interesting article, Jews in the south at the time of the civil war threw in with the south, their friends and neighbors. Nothing wrong with that. And when it comes to Jews I’d take Lee over Grant any day. BTW The spoiled little brats who heckled Netanyahu were part of the JVP. The most anti-Jewish organization this side of hamas and the einzatzgruppen.

In the list of books on Judah P. Benjamin, unless I missed it, you have left out
“Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate” by Eli N. Evans who also wrote “The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South” and “The Lonely Days Were Sundays: Reflections of a Jewish Southerner” among others.

Benjamin could not have accused the Abolitionist senator of antisemitism since the word ws not invented until 1879.

Gobsmacked right now by your reference to Lockhart the dancer at Temptations, R.I.P. Jaren : http://youtu.be/YdruoPhYFEY

I have a small correction to a nicely done article. William R. King and James Buchanan did indeed share a household, but King died in 1853, four years before Buchanan became president, so King was never “first gentleman.” It seems, though, that Andrew Jackson liked to refer to King as Miss Nancy or Aunt Fancy. That just about settles it as far as I am concerned.

Runst says:

A propos of nothing in particular, the mystery writer John Dickson Carr, who is probably best remembered for his books about the colourful British master sleuths Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir H. M. Merrivale, also wrote an entertaining murder mystery set in pre-war New Orleans called “Papa La-Bas”. In this book, he recruits Judah P. Benjamin for the role as the brilliant detective who solves the case. Clearly, Carr was impressed by Benjamin’s mental powers (Dr. Fell and Merrivale were inspied by G. K. Chesterton and Winston Churchill, so Benjamin is in august company).

“Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly a factor in the postbellum’s South exclusion of Benjamin from its Confederate pantheon.”

Of Confederate cabinet members Benjamin is the only one that gets regular attention in part because he was Jewish, but also because he occupied important cabinet posts throughout the very short history of the Confederacy. He also advocated free slaves, well after it might have affected the outcome of the war. His Wikipedia page views come in around 150/day which puts him in league with Gen Jubal Early and about half of the 300/day Gen Pickett of Pickett’s charge gets. It is true a biggy like Stonewall Jackson gets about 10 times Benjamin’s attention. The ‘Pantheon’ only contains a hand full of the more successful generals, and does not include Jeff Davis who is mistakenly given the blame of the Confederacy’s many shortcomings.

As to being Gay, it is unlikely that he lived a gay lifestyle. He may have paid for boys now and again, but that is sex not a lifestyle. It is however true that homosexuality is not a modern phenomenon.

The South was actually much more tolerant of both Jews (which was easy at the time) but also Catholics aka Papists (who were a Northern fixation much like Muslims in the US today).

James Frederiksen says:

Judah’s brother, Joseph, was my great-great-grandfather. The absurdity of the assumption that Judah was gay, is beyond contemptuous. He also sold his plantation well before the war, because of constant flooding that ruined his crops. He, as a result, freed his 140 slaves. He also offered to his dear friend, Jefferson Davis, a 7 year plan to end slavery and end the war with the Union. It was rejected out of hand by the confederate cabinet. These are the accounts from my grandmother, and her brothers who are long dead, having died in their late 80′s and early 90′s. They still believed in the confederacy to their dying day. I do not, but they were not known for being untruthful, nor given to flights of fancy. Joseph disappeared in Honduras during an uprising of former slaves, sometime after 1884, after borrowing a large sum of money from Judah.

Silk says:

JEWS WERE THE REAL RACISTS! 10,000 JEWS FOUGHT FOR THE CONFEDERACY BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO KEEP THE AFRICAN-AMERICANS AS SLAVES!!! YET THE GENTILES GET BLAMED FOR IT!!! YOU JEWS ARE THE REAL RACISTS!!!

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The Forgotten Confederate Jew

How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century