Raised in Charleston, South Carolina, Judah P. Benjamin (1811, St. Croix – 1884, Paris) was 14 years old when he left home to attend Yale Law School. (For unknown reasons, he did not graduate.) By age 21, he was settled in New Orleans, had passed the Louisiana bar and began practicing law. In addition to his work as a lawyer, Benjamin also was a founder of the Illinois Central Railroad and the owner of a sugar plantation (and its 140 slaves whom he eventually freed).

After being involved in state politics for a number of years, Benjamin was elected to the United States Senate in 1852. He was the second senator of Jewish ancestry (the first was David Levy Yulee). During his involvement in national politics, Benjamin was twice offered a seat on the Supreme Court.

Benjamin was, at heart, a Southerner. When the southern states seceded in 1861, he went with them. A close friend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Benjamin was first appointed Attorney-General to the Confederacy and then Secretary of War. When Roanoke Island fell to the Union, Benjamin was vilified for not sending supplies and back-up forces. It later came to light, however, that he had allowed the blame to fall on himself rather than let the Union know just how much the Confederates were lacking in soldiers and supplies. He stepped down as Secretary of War and was appointed Secretary of State. 

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Benjamin settled in England. Many false rumors connected him to the assassination, and he feared for his safety. Since the British colony of St. Croix was his place of birth, Benjamin had British citizenship. Once established in London, he resumed his practice of law and eventually attained the rank of Queen’s Counsel. 

Upon his retirement Benjamin settled in Paris, where he passed away on May 6, 1884, at the age of 72.

*An Interesting Addition:

Judah P. Benjamin expressed his Jewish pride in the face of an anti-Semitic attack by Senator Benjamin Wade in 1853 by replying: “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amid the thundering and lightening of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.”

One cannot help but reflect on the similarity of this statement to its more famous predecessor expressed by Sir Benjamin D’Israeli in 1835: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.”

May is Jewish American Heritage Month.

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