Judah P. Benjamin: The Gay Jewish Confederate Leader Without a Statue to Tear Down
From The Forward:
Ari Feldman August 20, 2017
Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson, the three most famous Confederate heroes, have hundreds of memorials and monuments in public spaces throughout the United States dedicated in their memory.
Judah Philip Benjamin, the most significant Jewish political figure in the United States during the 19th century, often called the “brains of the Confederacy,” has four. One is a house that Benjamin never owned. One’s a rusted bell. None of them are statues of his likeness.
Though Judah Benjamin was a brilliant legal mind, a legendary orator and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ right-hand man, it is likely that he has no major monuments because he alienated himself from both Jewish and non-Jewish Southerners.
“Non-Jews didn’t make statues of him because he was a Jew, and Jews didn’t make statues of him because he was intermarried and not really associated with the Jewish community,” said Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and author of “Lincoln and the Jews.” …
Because of his less-than-revered status, Benjamin has not become a focus of the current movement to remove statues of Confederate figures that has roiled the nation and shaken President Trump’s administration. …
Some historians say Jews should be more aware of how their history was deeply intertwined with the Confederacy — and slavery.
In general, Jews were more welcomed in the South than in the North because Southern WASP elites saw themselves as an agrarian aristocracy and thus viewed Jews as valued mercantile complements. For example, Birmingham, Alabama had both a German Jewish country club and a Russian Jewish country club.
In contrast, post-Puritan Northern elites saw Jews as commercial competitors.
“It’s hard to excise Judah Benjamin’s memory from the American Jewish consciousness, because it’s not in the American Jewish consciousness,” said Robert Rosen, who recounted Benjamin’s life in the book “The Jewish Confederates.”
There is only one known statue of a Jewish Confederate leader. It depicts David Levy Yulee, an industrialist, plantation owner and Confederate senator from Florida, and it shows him sitting on a bench. The statue commemorates a railway he built, not his Senate service. It stands in the small northern Florida town of Fernandina Beach (population: 12,500), and so far no one has suggested toppling it.
Levy Yulee, who was some kind of cousin of Benjamin, preceded Benjamin as the first Jewish U.S. Senator. An ardent Secessionist, the Union locked Levy Yulee up after the Civil War for about 9 months. But then they let him out and later President Grant came and stayed at his house as a gesture of reconciliation between the North and the South.
Similarly, Benjamin’s boss, Jefferson Davis, was imprisoned for a couple of years.
In contrast, Benjamin got out while the getting was still good in April 1865. In English exile, he wrote a bestselling legal textbook, Benjamin on Sales, and became a highly paid lion of the British bar. But his fleeing abroad rather than take his lumps at home was considered dishonorable in America.
… “Judah Benajmin is a great example of how Southern Jews were assimilated into Southern society,” said Robert Rosen. “But of course they accepted all the values of that society, including slavery.”
While the majority of Southern Jews owned slaves, of those most only had house slaves. Benjamin, however, owned a 300-acre plantation and 140 slaves to grow and harvest sugarcane on it. (One of his biographers has asserted that he was a “humane” slaveowner.)
It was hard to be a humane sugar plantation owner. The crop hierarchy of humanity went tobacco > cotton > sugar.
Benjamin was elected to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana, and in the Senate he gained a reputation as a legendary orator and as an apologist for slavery. One member of Congress called him “an Israelite with Egyptian principles.” …
Benjamin had many roles in the Confederacy, moving from Attorney General to Secretary of War to Secretary of State. He was considered Jefferson Davis’ right-hand-man. …
“He was discreet, loyal, a workaholic, somebody you wanted on your side,” Rosen said. In his book, Rosen writes that Benjamin negotiating loans for the cash-starved Confederacy and was the South’s “spymaster,” possibly even organizing a plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in the waning days of the war.
Various conspiracy theorists have theorized that Benjamin was involved in the John Wilkes Booth conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln, but Benjamin had ordered burned all the records of the Confederate spy service a week before, so we’ll never know. (The Confederate government had been outraged by an unsporting 1864 Union raid intended to assassinate Davis and Benjamin.)
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton acted decisively to have tried and hanged the obviously guilty lower level conspirators, but didn’t pursue the wispier trails into the highest levels of the Confederacy.
“He certainly was the most important person in the government other than Davis,” Rosen added.
Benjamin was also held in low regard by many for another reason: many historians now suspect that he was gay. This hypothesis, says Sarna, “explains a lot of things.”
For one, Benjamin burned all his personal documents on his deathbed.
… Furthermore, the stated reason for Benjamin’s early dismissal from Yale was “ungentlemanly conduct,” a common euphemism for being gay in the 19th century. Perhaps most tellingly, Benjamin’s wife lived in Paris for nearly five decades during their marriage. He visited her and their daughter once a year at most. …
There was at least one attempt to raise a real statue of Benjamin — but it wasn’t even by a Jewish organization. In August 1910, the Daily States, a New Orleans evening newspaper, suggested in an editorial that the city’s planned memorial to Jefferson Davis include a statue of Benjamin on the other side of Canal Street, in downtown New Orleans. “We refer to Judah P. Benjamin, one of the most remarkable men of his age, and one of the most intellectual his splendid race has produced,” the editorial read. …
His face appears on the Confederacy’s two-dollar bill, issued in 1862, which can fetch about $25 on Ebay. … One Jewish alt-right blogger, known as Reactionary Jew, uses Benjamin’s face as his profile picture on Twitter.
Robert Rosen, Benjamin’s biographer, thinks it’s a shame that more American Jews do not know about the Jewish Confederate, even with his support for slavery.
“He was the most successful Jewish figure in American politics until [Louis] Brandeis,” Rosen said.
“If there were a statue, I would defend it,” he added. “Maybe I’ll build a statue, now that you’ve called me.”