Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

The Forgotten Confederate Jew

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

Print Email
(Collage Margarita Korol; original images Yale University Library)
Related Content

The Jewish Vote and the Nagging Question of Dual Loyalty

Charges have dogged American Jews since the 1868 election, as Jonathan Sarna explains in ‘When General Grant Expelled the Jews’

Repeat Performances

What Jewish rituals and Judaism share with Civil War reenactment and Southern culture

Even if they could make peace with his politics, contemporary liberals still couldn’t claim Benjamin as gay ground-breaker with full assurance because the historical record is too sparse. When a biographer approached Benjamin in the final year of his life, hoping to read his papers and interview him, he replied, “I have no materials available for your purpose. … I have never kept a diary or retained a copy of a letter written by me … for 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.” Before his death, Benjamin destroyed even the few papers he had. (Whatever the facts of Benjamin’s personal life, the title of first gay senator would still likely belong to William King of Alabama, who went to Washington decades before Benjamin and served as a kind of First Gentleman to bachelor president James Buchanan.)

Acknowledging the likelihood that Benjamin was gay makes the pathological privacy that puzzled his chroniclers much more understandable. Reading those biographies today, one experiences the strange sensation that historians are presenting him as an almost farcically stereotypical gay man and yet wear such impervious heteronormative blinders that they themselves know not what they write. At the turn of the last century, one biographer, Pierce Butler, painted Benjamin as a fastidious wedding planner, noting that his letter recounting his daughter’s Parisian nuptials is “almost feminine in its attention to detail.” A 1960s biographer reprints “the dapper Jew’s” queeny rant over the powdered-wig getup he was made to don as a London barrister—and yet insistently paints Benjamin as a hen-pecked, jilted spouse, who reluctantly lived with his little sister, Peninah (“Penny”), rather than his beloved wife at his Belle Chasse mansion. Even as late as the 1980s, a biographer’s dish that Benjamin was “a favorite of all government wives in the Richmond capital” seems to assume his popularity was that of a rake not a hag-magnet.

Only in the 2001 reprint of a 1943 biography does historian William C. Davis finally acknowledge in his introduction “cloaked suggestions that he [Benjamin] was a homosexual.” This distinct possibility colors not only Benjamin’s enduring marriage to an unfaithful woman on another continent but also his mystery-shrouded dismissal from Yale for “ungentlemanly conduct.” In a larger sense, it colors Benjamin’s scrupulous privacy and his descent into historical obscurity itself.

Whatever his reasons, by destroying his papers, Benjamin ensured not just his personal privacy but his historical marginalization. For all his prominence, he is largely absent from Civil War history books because he left nothing for historians to work from. By contrast, such books are dominated by minor personages like Mary Chestnut, the wife of a military aide to Jefferson Davis, and George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer, not because they enjoyed anything rivaling Benjamin’s importance but solely because they were such committed and eloquent diarists.

***

During the 2010 Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in New Orleans, four men, a rabbi among them, dropped by Temptations one afternoon and requested a tour.

“The Jewish aspect, that was their interest,” Denise Chatellier, the blonde, middle-aged manager told me, in her office marked “Satan Place.” As word spread through the convention, dozens of attendees slipped out of dull conference sessions to take in the Benjamin residence. “All of a sudden, I was giving all these tours,” Chatellier said. “They were the ones who opened my eyes up to appreciate the whole history of the place.” At the convention, meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used Benjamin’s signature rhetorical tactic to tar his young Jewish hecklers as anti-Semitic dupes for suggesting that a unique history of suffering should make Jews particularly sensitive to human rights.

On the floor of Temptations, such heady concerns felt remote. As Lockhart’s successor on the pole spun around in a pink teddy, patrons downed enough liquor to blot out whatever would happen in this house a few hours from now, let alone a few centuries ago. Lockhart had told me that the upper floors of the home are inhabited by a ghostly woman in a white dress, whose presence can be felt moving through the darkened hallways and empty lap-dance rooms. She agreed it would have to be Ninette, Benjamin’s Parisian-raised daughter, still searching for her absentee father, a man lost to history not least because he doesn’t want to be found.

***

Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2 3View as single page
Print Email
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).

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

The Forgotten Confederate Jew

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

More on Tablet:

Martha Stewart’s Recipe for Matzo S’mores

By Stephanie Butnick — The queen of Christmas crafting tries out a haimish Passover snack