The Judah P. Benjamin Whiteness Crisis


Judah P. Benjamin, US Senator, Attorney General of the Confederacy, and Queen`s Counsel

On Kevin Drum`s blog, Adam Serwer recounts recent conventional wisdom about American history:

White ethnics—Irish, Italians, Jews—were long excluded from whiteness on the grounds that they were racially inferior, but they were integrated into a more inclusive redefinition of whiteness post-World War II.

I used to reply to this:

Indeed, who can forget that stunning scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett O`Hara`s Irish last name is accidentally revealed, and thus she is immediately sold into slavery.

But, true believers in the wisdom of Noel Ignatiev always reply to the effect: “Hey, dumbass, don`t you know Gone With the Wind is fiction?!”

So, as a nonfiction example, above is a Confederate two dollar bill from 1862. The man pictured is Judah P. Benjamin, who served the Confederate government as Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State. And it wasn`t just a Confederate thing either: both Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce had previously offered Benjamin a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, an honor he declined each time in order to keep his U.S. Senate seat.

(Benjamin was the second Jewish Senator. The first was his cousin once removed, David Levy Yulee of Florida, who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1845 and resigned in 1861. He served in the Congress of the Confederacy until being imprisoned by the victorious Union forces in 1865.)

According to Wikipedia`s article on Benjamin:

He was a noted advocate of the interests of the South. According to the author Carl Sandburg, the abolitionist Benjamin Wade of Ohio said the Southern senator was “a Hebrew with Egyptian Principles”, as he represented slaveholders.[6] Benjamin replied, “It is true that I am a Jew, and when my ancestors were receiving their Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings of Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain.”[7]

Similarly, in 1835, Benjamin Disraeli replied to an attack by Irish Roman Catholic leader Daniel O`Connell:

‘Yes, I am a Jew, and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.’”

The popular version in which Disraeli begins, “While your ancestors were painting themselves blue…” appears to be a subsequent embroidery. But, a good one!