Judah P. Benjamin, The (Possibly ) Gay Jew Who Kept the Confederacy Running
From The Tablet:
How history lost Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century
By Daniel Brook
July 17, 2012
… I asked if she was aware of the building’s notable history as the former home of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of state and America’s first openly Jewish senator.
To be pedantic, Benjamin’s kinsman David Levy Yulee, who first became a U.S. Senator from Florida in 1845, was openly Jewish ethnically (he even added a second Sephardic surname as an adult), although he converted to Christianity when marrying the daughter of a former U.S. Postmaster General and governor of Kentucky. Senator Levy Yulee was a notorious pro-slavery and pro-secession hothead known as the “Florida Fire Eater” who served in the Confederate Congress throughout the Civil War. The victorious Union threw him in the hoosegow for 9 months afterwards.
By the way, the woman the narrator is talking to is a stripper who dances in the gentleman’s club that now occupies Senator Benjamin’s grand old mansion in New Orleans.
She was not. I told her that up the staircase to the lap-dance rooms had once ascended “the brains of the Confederacy,” the U.S. Senate’s whip-smart “Gentleman from Louisiana,” a gifted orator—the most prominent American Jew of the 19th century.
Lockhart’s ignorance was unsurprising—and not just because the exotic dancer is no Civil War buff. Benjamin has confounded even the myriad professional historians who have tried to rescue him from his obscurity as the enigma who stares out from the Confederate $2 bill. But how could so prominent a man, anointed in the moonlight-and-magnolias-besotted chronicle of the antebellum Southern aristocracy, A Class by Themselves, as “arguably the greatest of all Southerners,” be so utterly forgotten today? Temptations, I pointed out, didn’t have so much as a plaque acknowledging its building’s tremendous significance to New Orleans, Southern, and American-Jewish history.
Lockhart, having mastered her profession’s art of feigning interest in men’s minds as a way into their wallets, pressed her hand insistently to my thigh and gushed, “That explains why the place is haunted.”
Benjamin hovers like an apparition over American Jewish history. …
Benjamin was born a British subject on St. Croix in 1811 to a family of Sephardic Jews. In 1822, the Benjamin family immigrated to America, seeking their fortune in what was then the nation’s most Jewish city: Charleston, S.C. …
He was packed off to Yale at age 14 where he became the sole Jew in his class. …
But the little big man on campus—Benjamin stood just over five feet tall—never graduated. In 1827, he was expelled from the university for “ungentlemanly conduct” of an unspecified nature. Rumors that the tempest in New Haven involved gambling, carousing, or kleptomania dogged him the rest of his life, particularly during the Civil War when the Northern press rehashed the scandal to tar the man they called the South’s “evil genius.”
Apparently ashamed to return to Charleston in disgrace, Benjamin instead headed to its bawdy sister city on the Mississippi: New Orleans …
By 1852, “the Little Jew from New Orleans” had made enough of a name for himself as a state legislator to be sent to the U.S. Senate, chosen, as was then customary, not by popular election but by statehouse pols. On the Senate floor, Benjamin flourished as an orator of the Southern cause, a master of the secessionist rhetoric that cast slaveholders as victims. After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, with the war looming, Benjamin intoned in a speech to his Northern Senate colleagues, “You may carry desolation into our peaceful land, and with torch and fire you may set our cities in flames … but you never can subjugate us; you never can convert the free sons of the soil into vassals, paying tribute to your power; and you never, never can degrade them to the level of an inferior and servile race. Never! Never!” When an abolitionist senator, citing the Book of Exodus, called Benjamin out for the signal hypocrisy of a Jew shilling for slavery—he tarred him as “an Israelite with Egyptian principles”—Benjamin cried anti-Semitism and refused to answer the charge on the merits.
With Louisiana’s secession from the Union in 1861, Benjamin, having turned down the chance to be the first Jew nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court, was tapped by Confederate President Jefferson Davis as his right-hand man. During the war, Benjamin rotated through a series of Cabinet positions, first attorney general, then secretary of war, and finally secretary of state. Because of Benjamin’s Jewishness, Davis presumably figured he could never challenge him for the presidency should the South succeed in its bid for independence. (Unlike the United States Constitution, the Confederate Constitution permitted immigrants to become president provided they were Confederate citizens at the time of its ratification.) Secretary of State Benjamin was given the daunting diplomatic task of trying to obtain international recognition for the South as an independent country—a hopeless endeavor he pursued with such zeal he was later dubbed the “Confederate Kissinger.”
When the war ended, Benjamin fled Richmond posing as a French farmer who spoke only broken English. The short, fat attorney eluded a U.S. Army manhunt through the swamps of Florida before setting sail for London, where he began his legal practice anew from scratch. Soon counted among Britain’s most successful barristers, he built his wife a trophy home on the Rue d’Iéna in Paris and threw a lavish wedding for his daughter. In 1884, Benjamin died a wealthy man. Against his wishes, his wife had him buried in a Catholic cemetery, the famed Père Lachaise, where he rests today in obscurity, ignored by tourists tramping from Marcel Proust’s grave to Jim Morrison’s.
Why did Benjamin disappear? …
Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly a factor in the postbellum’s South exclusion of Benjamin from its Confederate pantheon. The portly, pint-sized Jew commanding the valiant gentile generals was a convenient scapegoat for the military disasters that unfolded on his watch as secretary of war. But it is more the events and memorializations of the postbellum era that sealed Benjamin’s sorry fate. While Jefferson Davis became a martyr to the Lost Cause, spending two years in a U.S. Army brig and being stripped of his American citizenship, Benjamin fled the country to become a rich British lawyer. …
For the guardians of Confederate memory after Reconstruction, Benjamin became a kind of pet Jew, generally ignored, but then trotted out at opportune moments to defend the segregated South against charges of bigotry. In 1943, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization whose idea of a fundraiser in the early 20th century was selling primers on the glories of the Ku Klux Klan to schoolchildren, erected a pink granite monument to Benjamin on the Sarasota, Fla., plantation where he set sail to escape his U.S. Army pursuers.
… Today’s liberal American Jewish community also appears to be squeamish about preserving the memory of its illustrious ancestor. Reform Rabbi Daniel Polish surely spoke for many when he recounted in the Los Angeles Times in 1988 that learning of Benjamin “represent[ed] a significant dilemma [in] my years growing up as a Jew both proud of his people and with an intense commitment to the ideals of liberalism and human solidarity that I found embodied in the civil rights movement.” …
Even if they could make peace with his politics, contemporary liberals still couldn’t claim Benjamin as gay ground-breaker with full assurance because the historical record is too sparse. When a biographer approached Benjamin in the final year of his life, hoping to read his papers and interview him, he replied, “I have no materials available for your purpose. … I have never kept a diary or retained a copy of a letter written by me … for I have read so many American biographies which reflected only the passions and prejudices of their writers, that I do not want to leave behind me letters and documents to be used in such a work about myself.” Before his death, Benjamin destroyed even the few papers he had. …
Acknowledging the likelihood that Benjamin was gay makes the pathological privacy that puzzled his chroniclers much more understandable. Reading those biographies today, one experiences the strange sensation that historians are presenting him as an almost farcically stereotypical gay man and yet wear such impervious heteronormative blinders that they themselves know not what they write. At the turn of the last century, one biographer, Pierce Butler, painted Benjamin as a fastidious wedding planner, noting that his letter recounting his daughter’s Parisian nuptials is “almost feminine in its attention to detail.” A 1960s biographer reprints “the dapper Jew’s” queeny rant over the powdered-wig getup he was made to don as a London barrister—and yet insistently paints Benjamin as a hen-pecked, jilted spouse, who reluctantly lived with his little sister, Peninah (“Penny”), rather than his beloved wife at his Belle Chasse mansion. Even as late as the 1980s, a biographer’s dish that Benjamin was “a favorite of all government wives in the Richmond capital” seems to assume his popularity was that of a rake not a hag-magnet.
Only in the 2001 reprint of a 1943 biography does historian William C. Davis finally acknowledge in his introduction “cloaked suggestions that he [Benjamin] was a homosexual.” …
In other words, there is not a lot of evidence one way or another whether Benjamin should instead have been on the Confederate three dollar bill.
But, the interesting thing is that there would be nothing terribly anomalous about Benjamin’s role upholding the Slave Power if it turns out he was gay. Like Jews, gays down through history have typically been more likely to be on the side of inequality and hierarchy.