Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin (CSA)

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Aug 27, 2016
Hangzhou, China (Wisconsin, USA)
Judah Philip Benjamin (1st Confederate States Attorney General, 2nd C.S. Secretary of War, 3rd C.S. Secretary of State)

Benjamin was born on 11 August 1811 in St. Croix, Danish West Indies (today the U.S. Virgin Islands). His parents were Sephardic Jews. At 14, he entered Yale College. Although a successful student, he left in 1827 without completing his course of study. Allegations during and after the Civil War claimed he had been expelled for thievery or gambling.

He moved to New Orleans and eventually became a clerk at a law firm and began to read law. He learned French, important for practicing law in Louisiana, and was admitted to the bar in 1832. He married Natalie St. Martin, a Catholic from a wealthy French Creole family. The marriage fell apart leading to rumors that Judah was impotent or gay and that Natalie was unfaithful.

Benjamin became a specialist in commercial law. In 1842, he had a group aof case with international implications. He represented insurance companies being sued for the value of slaves who had revolted aboard the ship Creole in 1841, as they were being transported in the coastwise slave trade from Virginia to New Orleans. The rebels had sailed the ship to Nassau in the Bahamas, British territory, where most were freed, as Britain had abolished slavery. The owners of the slaves brought suit for $150,000 against their insurers, who declined to pay. Benjamin made several arguments, the most prominent of which was that the slaveowners had brought the revolt on themselves by packing the slaves in overcrowded conditions.

Benjamin asked in his brief to the court:

What is a slave? He is a human being. He has feelings and passion and intellect. His heart, like the heart of the white man, swells with love, burns with jealousy, aches with sorrow, pines under restraint and discomfort, boils with revenge, and ever cherishes the desire for liberty ... Considering the character of the slave, and the peculiar passions which, generated by nature, are strengthened and stimulated by his condition, he is prone to revolt in the near future of things, and ever ready to conquer his liberty where a probable chance persons itself.

The court ruled for his clients and his brief was widely reprinted by abolitionist groups, though it likely did not represent his personal beliefs.

Wealthy from his law practice, he bought a sugar cane plantation in the early 1840s. He purchased 140 slaves and had a reputation as a humane slaveowner. He served as a Whig elector in 1848, casting his vote for Zachary Taylor. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore appointed Benjamin as judge of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. He was confirmed by the Senate but declined as the salary was too small.

In 1851, he was elected to the Lousiana state senate. He immediately emerged as a leading candidate to the U.S. Senate seat that would become vacant on 4 March 1853 and the Whigs successful elected him. Outgoing President Fillmore, a fellow Whig, offered to nominate Benjamin to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. The new president, Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, also offered Benjamin a place on the Supreme Court. Benjamin declined preferring active politics and to maintain his law practice.

Benjamin believed slavery should continue because citizens had a right to their property as guaranteed by the Constitution. He defended Senator Stephen Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Bill claiming that it returned to "the traditions of the fathers" that the federal government not legislate on the subject of slavery. The Whig Party disintegrated and in May 1856, Benjamin joined the Democrats. Around this time, he met Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and they formed a "respectful but wary" relationship.

In his speeches in the Senate, Benjamin took the position that the Union was a compact by the states from which any of them could secede, however, he understood that any dissolution would not be peaceful. In 1860, he worked to deny Douglas the Democratic presidential nomination. Between June and December 1860, he was absorbed in the case of United States v. Castillero and by the time he returned east from San Francisco there was talk of secession from the Union. He counseled secession as a last resort and as a means of obtaining more favorable terms in a reformed Union. He and his Louisiana colleague, John Slidell, resigned from the U.S. Senate on 4 February 1861, nine days after their state voted to secede.

New Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Benjamin as attorney general. During his time as attorney general his efforts were fruitful and he ingratiated himself to Davis. When Secretary of War Leroy Walker resigned to join the army as a brigadier general, Davis considered himself more qualified and gave many orders himself, Davis appointed Benjamin in his place. Benjamin served as Attorney General and Secretary of War until 15 November 1861.

He had difficulty managing the Confederacy's generals quarelling with P.G.T Beauregard and Stonewall Jackson. Powerful state governments and supply shortages also plagued Benjamin. Governors demanded their troops be returned to defend their own states. Defeats at Roanoke and Forts Henry and Donelson led to a public outcry against Benjamin. When Secretary of State Robert M.T. Hunter quarreled with Davis and resigned in March 1862, Benjamin was appointed as his replacement.

As Secretary of State, Benjamin attempted to gain official recognition for the Confederacy by France and the United Kingdom, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. To preserve the Confederacy as military defeat made its situation increasingly desperate, he advocated freeing and arming the slaves, but his proposals were not accepted until it was too late. When Davis fled the Confederate capital of Richmond in early 1865, Benjamin went with him, but left the presidential party and was successful in escaping, whereas Davis was captured by Union troops. He eventually fled to Britain. In Britain, he became a barrister, again rising to the top of his profession. He retired in 1883 and died 6 May 1884 in Paris.

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