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The Counterlife of Judah P. Benjamin

Enigmatic, bigoted, prominent figure of the Confederacy—and by one measure the highest-ranking Jew in the history of American government. What are we to do with him now?

Michael Hoberman
August 11, 2020
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

In episode four of HBO’s production of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro) drawls out the story of Judah Benjamin, the “Jewish lawyer who served [Jefferson] Davis as attorney general, as secretary of war, and as secretary of state.” Bengelsdorf, a Lindbergh apologist who is himself the son of a German-born South Carolina Jewish peddler and veteran of the Confederate army, is trying his best to convince the Levin family that Jewish boys like their eldest son Sandy will be accepted as real Americans if they are willing, first, to become real Confederates. While he is careful to point out that “the cause for which the South went to war was neither legal nor moral,” Bengelsdorf isn’t just telling Benjamin’s story because it represents a high-water mark of Jewish political achievement in America. Why Bengelsdorf chooses to share Judah Benjamin’s story—and not, say, Haym Solomon’s—with the Levins has everything to do with what Benjamin did in order to prove his American bona fides.

Judah Benjamin has long been an object of ambivalent fascination for American Jews not just because he owned slaves and served a government whose central purpose was the perpetuation of slavery as an institution, but because he attained power and recognition as the direct result of doing so. For this reason, Benjamin’s legacy as an early American Jew, especially as it has been fictionalized, warrants our consideration today. The urgency with which the Jewish community of Charlotte, North Carolina, petitioned city officials last month to oversee the removal of a downtown monument that memorialized “the Confederate Kissinger” is indicative of just how much symbolic, and potentially dangerous, weight his story still carries.

Benjamin is hardly a fitting subject for admiration, and his ideas concerning race, though of his time and place, are indefensible. To be content with merely condemning him, however, is to fall short of recognizing not only how truly Jewish and American he was, but exactly what American Jews are letting go of as they dismiss the one figure from their past whose face made it onto on a piece of paper currency.

In the HBO miniseries, Bengelsdorf gets one thing wrong about Benjamin (actually, Roth himself is the witting or unwitting source of the error—the production takes the rabbi’s words directly from the pages of the novel): He refers to Benjamin as “one of South Carolina’s two senators” when, in fact, despite his having spent his childhood in Charleston, the man who came to be remembered as “the brains of the Confederacy” represented Louisiana in the U.S. Senate. Factual errors in novels—and especially in works of alternate historical fiction like The Plot Against America—needn’t give us enormous pause. After all, Roth waded quite successfully through an enormous amount of World War II-era history in order to write The Plot. Bengelsdorf’s mistake is an important one because it’s indicative of a larger pattern in depictions of the Jewish Confederate statesman: The facts are of less importance than the meanings that people attach to the facts. Why shouldn’t the quintessential Jewish Confederate have represented the state that was at once the most Confederate (first to secede!) and the most Jewish (when Benjamin was growing up there, in the early 1820s, the city of Charleston hosted the nation’s largest Jewish population)? The subtext that attaches to Benjamin’s story is that Jews have not only benefited from white supremacy but may acquire additional power and influence if they buy into it enthusiastically.

Judah Benjamin’s brief mention by Rabbi Bengelsdorf occurs on the heels of one of the novel’s only overt invocations of the race issue. Sandy has just returned to Newark from a summer spent living with a Christian family (the Mawhinneys) on a Kentucky tobacco farm as a participant in the Lindbergh administration’s “Just Folks” de-Jewification program. Bengelsdorf’s visit to the Levin household follows a dialogue sequence in which Philip plies his older brother with questions about what it was like to live with a family of Southern gentiles. After Sandy describes to him how the Black farmhands who work for the Mawhinneys eat chitterlings, Philip wants to know whether Sandy himself ate them. The question evokes an alarmed and defensive response from this newly minted Southern apologist: “Do I look like a Negro?”

The older brother understands and accepts the only terms upon which a Jew might hope to survive a fascist takeover in a society whose defining principle is a fixed racial hierarchy. Bengelsdorf, who evidently internalized this lesson early in life, is also eager to learn how Sandy’s indoctrination has proceeded. Thrilled to hear how thoroughly regionalized the boy has become in a course of single summer (little Philip notices that both Bengelsdorf and Sandy Levin pronounce “Kentucky” as if its first three letters are “K-i-n”), the rabbi regales the family with the tale of Judah Benjamin, the man who, according to the mythology, would certainly have perfected the art of being a Southern Jew if only the Lost Cause hadn’t been lost. Bengelsdorf himself is venturing a similar gamble in attaching his fortunes to Lindbergh’s “America First” presidency.

Judah Benjamin was a bigot but much more besides. His life left much to the imagination, especially since he destroyed all of his papers long before any scholar or novelist could get started on telling his story. Historians and fiction writers alike have viewed his many mysteries and invested them with multiple meanings. He never denied his Jewish origins or converted, but he made no attempt to affiliate with any Jewish community after he left Charleston at age 14. He attended Yale for three years but failed to graduate for a reason that is still unknown. His marriage to Natalie St. Martin, a Catholic Louisiana Creole, lasted more than 50 years, but the couple lived out most of those years on opposite shores of the Atlantic. His reputation among admirers of the Confederacy was also profoundly mixed. Allies viewed him as a fiercely loyal, strategically brilliant, and an indispensable adviser to Jefferson Davis, but detractors (who seem to have outnumbered the allies) viewed him as a self-serving, conniving, and opportunistic saboteur of the South’s fortunes. In recent years, speculation has grown that Benjamin led a secret life, both as the father of several mixed-race children and as a gay man.

Courtesy the author

In 1956, the American novelist Viña Delmar (née Alvina Louise Croter) published Beloved, which remains the one full-length fictional treatment of Benjamin’s life. As her title implies, Delmar’s thematic focus is on Benjamin as a tireless devotee to causes—to the furtherance of his career and public reputation, to the advancement of Louisiana’s political interests, to the success of the Confederacy, and most of all, to his marriage to Natalie, which persevered despite its highly unconventional aspect and Natalie’s frequent pursuit of other lovers. Delmar evinces little interest in exploring Benjamin’s own sexual proclivities outside of his on-again, off-again marriage. Benjamin’s occasional joking references with his friend John Slidell (of Trent Affair fame) to the proverbial “quadroon mistresses,” whose attentions he fails to pursue owing to his passionate devotion to his own marriage, comprise the sum total of Delmar’s speculations on that front.

Benjamin’s purported lack of interest in “quadroons” would appear as well to be a function of Delmar’s reluctance to engage the subject of race in any real capacity. In 1956, even as it was entering an era of civil rights activism and racial unrest, the United States was gearing up for a reconciliatory and whitewashed Civil War centennial. The two hallmark achievements of that commemoration were the erasure of the war’s racial component and the solidification of a consensus mentality on the moral equivalency of both the Union and Confederate causes (which commemorators routinely summed up as “federal power” versus “states’ rights”). Readers of Beloved do encounter a handful of references in the book to Benjamin’s “ambivalence” on race. Every Confederate hero had, of course, to be described in such terms to tasteful audiences, which is why the statues of “Marse Robert” E. Lee and his fellow military heroes have only started to come down recently. Confederate boosterism went out of its way to highlight the moral decency and politeness of men and women whose slaveholding had evidently been thrust upon them.

Accordingly, Delmar highlights Benjamin’s 1842 defense of an insurance company that transported enslaved people along the southeastern coast. In order to win the case and spare his clients the cost of paying for a party of slaves that had rebelled and jumped ship in the British colony of Nassau, where slavery had already been outlawed, Benjamin highlighted the humanity of the Blacks who couldn’t help but liberate themselves when they got the chance to do so. The best way to win the day was to argue that the carriers whose interests he represented couldn’t be held responsible for the actions of their freedom-seeking human cargo.

Elsewhere in the novel, Delmar’s Benjamin airs his views on the subject of emancipation when he is being grilled by a hostile and Jew-baiting member of the Davis cabinet. When LeRoy Walker, who served as the first Confederate secretary of war, asks him to declare his sentiments on slavery, Benjamin speaks in favor of the institution’s preservation not so much on the grounds of Black inferiority but on the grounds of expediency and Southern pride. He simply doesn’t like the idea of caving in to arrogant Yankee demands. As he puts it to Walker, “If the South had said, ‘Let us free them all,’ I would have replied, ‘Splendid, let us do it.’”

Delmar would have her readers believe that Benjamin was, at worst, indifferent to the prospect of freeing slaves and, at best, in favor of it on the grounds that, as he puts it, it is “unfair to withhold learning from them and then judge them as lesser people because they have no learning.” She falls short, as Confederate apologists must always fall short, of accounting for why Benjamin devoted the most eventful years of his career to the defense of the nation whose sole purpose was to perpetuate the power of slave-owners and prop up a slavery-based economy.

Where does Benjamin’s Jewishness fit here, and to what extent does it permit him to pass as white? Where did a Jew fit on the racial spectrum in the mid-1800s? In Delmar’s novel, the subject only comes up once, in the book’s opening chapter, when the young Judah, having left Yale at the age of 16, spends his first day in New Orleans. A kindly landlady, of French Creole background, is showing him a room for rent and wishes to know what his nationality is. He announces himself to be one of Louisiana’s newly arrived “Americans.” “Not so,” she replies, referring to his dark hair and “the olive tones of his skin.” When he reveals his Jewish identity to her (she has surmised an “Egyptian or Turkish or Arabic” origin to him, and he must correct that error) the landlady proves to be perfectly tolerant—New Orleanians, after all, have always prided themselves on their pluralism—but she still won’t believe that he is an American. Since all of this takes place in the opening pages of the novel, the question of who Benjamin is functions as a problem that must be solved. The method upon which Benjamin eventually settles in hopes of proving his Americanness is one that some people deploy to this day: He becomes an advocate for the “Southern” way of life and the racial code that forms its basis.

That method served him for a period of time, at any rate. When the jig was up for the Confederacy, though, in the spring of 1865, Benjamin eagerly relinquished his American claims rather than allow federal authorities to capture him and put him on trial for treason. He traveled alone on horseback to the Gulf Coast of Florida, found a blockade-running captain who was willing to rescue him, impersonated a French (or Spanish—it depends on which source you consult) farmer when a Union patrol boarded the vessel, and survived two shipboard disasters between the Bahamas and Britain. He lived out his final 20 years as a British subject (his birth on St. Croix had made that possible), became a successful and celebrated barrister, and evidently gave up on caring who or what people thought he was. The novel about that period in his life has yet to be written, and since it probably won’t shed any light on Jewish racial status in the United States, maybe it never will be written.

Benjamin was, if nothing else, a versatile character, and his fictionalizers have exploited that quality of his. Dara Horn sums up this quality of Benjamin’s at the beginning of her 2009 novel All Other Nights: “His entire life was an elaborate refusal to be the person he had been born to be.” The picture of Benjamin that emerges in All Other Nights is more or less commensurate with the one we encounter in Beloved. He is a lonely man, a brilliant man, a put-upon man, a loyal man, and, above all, a man who is meant to appeal to readers because he finds a way to handle everything that comes at him and emerge from it with the semblance of a smile on his face. The greatest challenge we face with this simpatico character is that of squaring all of that decency with the source of interest that attracted us to his story in the first place: his high status in the Confederate government.

While Benjamin’s appearances more or less bookend Horn’s novel, nothing he says or does comes close to helping to resolve that dilemma. Instead, we experience the contradictions at an even greater order of magnitude. He is a nonbeliever who participates wholeheartedly in a Passover Seder. He may be plotting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln but also (in accordance, actually, with the known historical record) seeks to emancipate slaves who declare themselves willing to fight for the Confederacy. He is aware that his closest assistant, the novel’s protagonist, may be a Union spy, but out of something like paternal care (and, presumably, Jewish fellow-feeling) isn’t willing to act on that hunch. When Horn departs entirely from the established facts of Benjamin’s life, as with that last example, or as she spins out a story from his early childhood in Charleston, she comes as close as anyone probably ever will not so much to solving the Benjamin enigma but capturing its essence.

As Horn’s fictionalized Benjamin is preparing to evacuate the Confederate White House in Richmond and pursue his escape to England, he confides in the young Jewish clerk who has been spying on him. He tells about a time when he and his beloved sister Penina were swimming off the abandoned docks in Charleston harbor and she saved him from certain drowning by dragging him out of the water in the middle of a powerful thunderstorm. Judah’s greatest fear was discovery by his parents, so in an attempt to shield her little brother from punishment, Penina announces to their father that it was she whom Judah had rescued from the roiling waters. This, in turn, is what inspires Philip to believe that his son possesses the maturity necessary to leave home and attend Yale at the tender age of 14.

The possible implications from this story are myriad—that all Judah ever wanted was to be loved by his father, that his entire life was based on a fraudulent story, that he viewed himself right up until the end of his Confederate career, at any rate, as an inadequate and inauthentic being. It is all fascinating, of course, but it doesn’t add anything to our ability to make sense of what Benjamin ended up doing with his life, let alone why he did it. He was a smart Jew who loved his family, and he did more than just about anyone else did to assist Jefferson Davis in prosecuting a war that was fought to defend slavery.

Both of the Judah Benjamin monuments that showed up in the news this past June commemorated the same episode in Benjamin’s life: his flight, in June 1865, from North America to Britain. The one in Charlotte stood near the site of a Jewish-owned house where the refuge-seeking Benjamin hid out from his Union pursuers on his way to Florida. The other one was located in Sarasota, Florida, and, according to the Daughters of the Confederacy inscription that accompanied it, marked the spot where, “on June 23, 1865, Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State for the Confederacy, set sail for a foreign land.” In other words, even if the novelists are interested in exploring the intrigues of Benjamin’s life as a Confederate plantation owner and cabinet member who also happened to be a Jew, the blue-haired ladies who were tasked with elaborately monumentalizing every hero of the Lost Cause they could get their hands on were glad to wish him a bon voyage.

Michael Hoberman is a Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University and author of A Hundred Acres of America: The Geography of Jewish American Literary History.