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Judah Philip Benjamin
Birth: Aug. 6, 1811, British Virgin Islands
Death: May 6, 1884
Paris, France

Attorney, Statesman. Called "The Brains (or Shylock) of the Confederacy" and the "jolly rotundity", he was the first Jew to hold a number of significant positions while carving out three separate distinguished careers under the flags of three different nations. Born in Christiansted, St. Croix, British Virgin Islands to Sephardic English immigrant parents Philip and Rebecca de Mendes Benjamin who were of Dutch and Portuguese extraction, he was brought to North Carolina at around age two; initially the family lived in Wilmington where Philip was in business with an uncle Jacob Levy, then in 1817 they followed Mr. Levy up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville. There young Judah received his first formal education at a private academy run by Scottish Presbyterian minister Colin McIver, but by 1819 an economic downturn left Mr. Levy broke and the Benjamin family relocated to Charleston, South Carolina. In the summer of 1822, Benjamin had his first brush with political violence when he witnessed the abortive Denmark Vessey slave revolt and the subsequent public hangings of the ringleaders. In Charleston, he was a good student, again at a private academy, this time run by Rufus Southworth, his training financed by the Hebrew Orphan Society because apparently Philip was not a good businessman (indeed, Benjamin biographer Pierce Butler referred to him as "that rara avis, an unsuccessful Jew"). Charleston also marks the site of Benjamin's last brush with the practice of Judaism; the family worshipped at K.K. Beth Elohim Synagogue but were only marginally observant, while Philip was one of the "Twelve Dissenters" who founded the Reformed Society of Israelites, the first Reform congregation in the United States, but was expelled, probably for non-payment of dues, before the group folded in 1833. Throughout his life Benjamin identified himself as a Jew, albeit a completely non-observant Secular Jew. Stories of him giving a Yom Kippur address at a San Francisco synagogue in 1860 and being called to the Reading of the Law at either Beth Ahabah or K.K. Beth Shalom in Richmond during the Civil War are almost certainly apocryphal; indeed, the only House of Worship at which there is proof of his attendance as an adult is Richmond's St. Paul's Episcopal Church where he often joined President Davis in pew 63 to hear the preaching of Dr. Charles Minnigerode. In 1825, financed by either wealthy Charleston merchant Moses Lopez or by "a lady from Massachusetts", Benjamin was off to Yale University. In New Haven, which had significant populations of both Jews and Southerners, he did well, finding ready acceptance despite his youth while winning prizes for both academics and debate. At the start of his junior year he abruptly left Yale for reasons that remain clouded; by some accounts he was simply broke, but according to others he was accused of stealing from his fellow students. The facts remain that he received a letter of honorable dismissal from President Day and that the theft allegations were not publicized until more than 30 years later, and then by his political enemies. After brief stops in Upstate New York and in Charleston, Benjamin landed in New Orleans in 1828 and set about making his fortune; he clerked for a notary, a position that enabled him to learn routine legal procedures, and read law in his spare time. He also supplemented his income by teaching English to French-speaking Creoles, an activity that brought him into contact with the wealthy St. Martin family. Admitted to the Bar in December 1832, he wed pretty 16 year old Natalie St. Martin, who by some accounts was sexually adventuresome by her early teens, in a Catholic ceremony in February of 1833, and though the couple stayed married until death did them part it was a match made in Hell complete with extravagant spending and multiple affairs on Natalie's part. Fifteen years later Natalie moved to Paris with then five year old daughter Ninette, her only return to America being a brief and vain attempt at reconciliation when Benjamin was US Senator. Nevertheless the pair remained on some level devoted to each other, with Benjamin spending one month a year at Natalie's Paris home. Aided by fluency in English, French, and Spanish, Benjamin developed a successful commercial law practice, particularly specializing in appeals. Some of his ventures were to attract national attention including his defense of the insurers of a cargo of slaves lost when the ship "Creole" was commandeered and taken to British territory, thus freeing the slaves, with Benjamin successfully arguing that the slaves were made free by "natural law" not by "foreign interference", and the Castillero case tried in San Francisco just prior to the Civil War in which he attempted to protect a Mexican citizen from having his land and mining rights confiscated by the US government as 'spoils' of the Mexican War. With wealth and a high profile law practice it was natural for Benjamin to enter politics; named to the state legislature in 1842, he advocated positions then thought of as liberal, such as providing free public education for girls and outlawing the breaking up of slave families. In the mid 1840s, he also bought Belle Chase Plantation in Plaquemines Parish where he built a large mansion and pioneered more efficient means of sugar processing before selling the property and ceasing to own slaves in 1852. Having had a major role in the constitutional conventions of 1844 and 1852, Benjamin entered the US Senate as a Whig in 1853, the first avowed Jew to hold a seat in that body. (David Levy Yulee of Florida had long since renounced Judaism and converted to Presbyterian before joining the Senate). Offered appointment to the US Supreme Court by both Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce, he declined because the obligations of a spend-thrift wife in Paris and a large extended family in America would not permit him to accept an 80% income reduction. (Under the laws of the day, Senate service did not curtail his legal practice). Benjamin proved popular in the Senate, though he and Jefferson Davis of Mississippi came close to a duel shortly after his arrival. An eloquent defender of state's rights and of slavery, he nevertheless supported preservation of the Union and was easily re-elected to a second term in the Senate, this time as a Democrat. Storm clouds, however, were rapidly approaching; on January 26, 1861 Louisiana seceded and on February 4th Benjamin and John Slidell resigned from the Senate. Benjamin soon offered his services to his by-then good friend President Jefferson Davis and was appointed Attorney General, thus becoming the first Jewish Cabinet Officer in North America. Despite the largely do-nothing nature of the job he quickly made himself valuable as Davis' counsellor and "designated nice guy", frequently called upon to smoothe feathers that the President's abrasive manner had ruffled. On September 17, 1861 he was named Secretary of War, Leroy Pope Walker of Alabama having proven incompetent. Benjamin was responsible for putting Davis' policies into effect and soon made enemies of his own, including Generals Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson; in the late winter of 1862 he allowed himself to be unjustly blamed for the loss of Roanoke Island and fired in order to conceal from the Union the fact that he had sent no gunpowder to the garrison because he had none to send. By this time he was too important to let go and on March 17, 1862 he was made Secretary of State after the brilliant and capable Bob Toombs of Georgia drank himself out of the job. For the next three years he ran the Confederate Diplomatic Service with limited results; he obtained needed funds via the Erlanger Loan, but efforts to persuade England and France to break the naval blockade and fight along side the Confederacy proved futile. As head of the Secret Service he was also the "spymaster", responsible for a number of efforts including those of Confederate forces stationed in Canada. Unfortunately for posterity, records of his clandestine activities are scant both because of his own secretiveness and due to the confidential nature of the operations themselves. Late in the war he was tasked with voicing the proposal to enlist larger numbers of blacks into the Confederate Army, but by then the cause was lost and when the end came in April of 1865 Benjamin joined the government on its flight from Richmond, first burning all of his records, a move countless historians have regretted. Benjamin was determined "not to be taken alive" as he knew that he, along with Davis, had been unjustly accused of plotting the Lincoln assassination and felt that as a Confederate leader and a Jew he could never receive a fair trial. On May 3rd he left the official party near Washington, Georgia and made his way to Florida in the guise of "M. Bonfals", a French-speaking common laborer. (This represents a display of chutzpah as bonfals translates to "good disguise"). Following a stay at the Gamble Mansion and at the home of Captain Frederick Tresca he set off for England by boat, and after surviving both storm and fire at sea and with stops in Bimini, Nassau, and Havana, arrived in Southampton on August 30. Claiming British citizenship by birth he set about starting over in London at age 54. Though he had money to pay for his passage and to help his family as well as some other displaced Confederates, stories of him controlling a vast store of "Confederate Gold" are probably exaggerated as he had to economize in his daily life. Able to bring in some income writing newspaper and magazine articles, he joined Lincoln's Inn as an ordinary law student and resigned himself to years of preparation, but his ability was quickly recognized and in 1866 he was called to the Bar. He rapidly made a success of his practice as a barrister, so much so that when an 1868 general amnesty made it possible for him to return to America openly he had no desire to leave England. He even wrote a text commonly called "Benjamin on Sales" (1868) that is still a classic in the field of British transactional law. Taking Silk (made Queen's Counsel) in 1872, he became the first Jew and man not born in England, to be so honored. As Benjamin's legal stature and wealth increased judgeships were offered and declined as he knew he would never be able to afford the 'promotion'. Gradually slowing due to the effects of excess weight, diabetes, and heart disease, his health problems were worsened by head injuries suffered in an 1881 tram accident. Having spent increased time with Natalie during the London years, he retired to her Paris home, having once again burned all his papers, in 1883 and died there of cardiac disease the next year. On his death bed he received, at Natalie's instigation, the Last Rites of the Catholic Church, but was probably comatose at the time. Buried in his son-in-law's family plot as "Philippe Benjamin", he did not receive a proper marker until 1938 when one was placed by the Paris Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Long after his death Judah P. Benjamin remains an enigma, a friendly, cheerful man who hid his secrets behind a perpetual smile. For him when the Civil War was over it was over, as he wrote little and spoke nothing about it in his final 19 years. In fact, he was, at his own request, left out of President Davis' two volume memoir. Those who feel that he plotted the murder of Lincoln face a complete lack of evidence and must confront the fact that Benjamin would have never been part of such an operation without express orders, and that Davis would have never traded Lincoln for Johnson. A biographer's nightmare due to his private nature and lack of records, he has nevertheless been the subject of five full volumes, the definitive being Pierce Butler's "Judah P. Benjamin" (1907) and Robert Douthat Meade's 1943 "Judah P. Benjamin: Confederate Statesman". (bio by: Bob Hufford) 
Cimetière du Père Lachaise
City of Paris
Île-de-France, France
Plot: Division 15
Maintained by: Find A Grave
Originally Created by: Magnolia Jackson
Record added: Apr 26, 2002
Find A Grave Memorial# 6372266
Judah Philip Benjamin
Added by: Anonymous
Judah Philip Benjamin
Added by: Anonymous
Judah Philip Benjamin
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- yetigirl
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- Stephen C. Petit, Sr
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- Bob Hufford
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