Judah Philip Benjamin is regarded by many as one of the most outstanding Jews of the 19th Century in America. He was bom in St. Thomas, the West Indies, in 1811 and died in Paris in 1884 from injuries sustained in an accident. His father, Philip, was an English Jew, and his mother, Rebecca de Mendes, came from a Portuguese-Jewish family. They brought him to America when he was a young boy.
Benjamin attended Yale for two years without getting a degree. He prepared himself to become a lawyer by working as a clerk for a notary. In 1834, he attained wide recognition as a lawyer, which was enhanced by his legal writings.
Politically, Benjamin was a conservative who had joined the Whig Party. In 1842, he was elected to the Louisiana Legislature, the beginning of a long elected and appointed political career. Ten years later, he was the first Jew to be elected to the U.S. Senate.
Benjamin was a leading voice to advocate the Southem view while Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency of the United States. When Lincoln was elected President, Benjamin advocated that the South secede from the Union.
On February 4, 1861, after Louisiana had seceded, Benjamin made a brilliant last speech to the Senate and resigned his seat. Three weeks later, President Jefferson Davis appointed him to be the Attomey General of the Confederacy. Benjamin didn't last long in this position. President Davis changed his appointment to Secretary of War, where Benjamin was confronted with all kinds of problems. There were shortages of ammunition and weapons for the Confederate Army. Some people held Benjamin responsible for the Confederate losses at Roanoke Island and Forts Henry and Donelson because of the shortage of ammunition.
At this time, Secretary of State Hunter resigned and President Davis asked Benjamin to be his replacement. As Secretary of State, he knew that the South needed more soldiers. The only way to recruit was to enlist the slaves with a promise of freedom.
While a debate was being held by political leaders on the question of using slaves as soldiers, the Northem Armies picked up momentum and swept through the South. President Davis withdrew his cabinet into seclusion and sent out emissaries to negotiate a peace with the North. Benjamin went with his family down the coast and managed to escape to the West Indies, where he boarded a ship for England.
In London, he started his career again and became famous for his legal work and writings. He regained his wealth, becoming a famous personality at the same time.
Judah Philip Benjamin didn't practice his religion, nor did he get involved with Jewish organizations. However, he always acknowledged that he was a Jew and never backed away when confronted with it. As a politician and a lawyer, he was second to none in America.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
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Last updated 12 May 2011