Where are all the stat­ues of Ju­dah Ben­jamin?

The ‘Brains of the Con­fed­er­acy’ was Jef­fer­son Davis’s right-hand man. Yet, few traces of him re­main.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ari Feld­man

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 Ben­jamin was a bril­liant le­gal mind, a leg­endary or­a­tor and Con­fed­er­ate Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis’s right­hand man, it is likely that the rea­son he has no ma­jor mon­u­ments is that 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 the au­thor, in 2015, of “Lin­coln and the Jews.”

“He kind of lost both sides,” Sarna said.

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. It was the Vir­ginia city of Char­lottesville’s push to re­move a statue of Lee that sparked the mid-Au­gust white su­prem­a­cist rally, which left one counter-demon­stra­tor dead and many oth­ers in­jured.

Some his­to­ri­ans say Jews should be more aware of how their his­tory was deeply in­ter­twined with the Con­fed­er­acy — and with slav­ery.

“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 2000 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.

Ben­jamin was the child of English mer­chants whose an­ces­tors were Jews evicted from Spain in 1492. After get­ting kicked out of Yale Uni­ver­sity at 16, he be­came a lawyer in New Or­leans and mar­ried a Catholic daugh­ter of a prom­i­nent lo­cal fam­ily. He even­tu­ally es­tab­lished a suc­cess­ful prac­tice in com­mer­cial law at a time when the city was a cen­ter of in­ter­na­tional trade.

That in­cluded slaves. Although Ben­jamin rep­re­sented slaves in mul­ti­ple cases, ac­knowl­edg­ing their hu­man­ity in public and pri­vate, he would ul­ti­mately de­ter­mine that slaves, as prop­erty, were a man’s right.

“Ju­dah Ben­jamin is a great ex­am­ple of how South­ern Jews were as­sim­i­lated into South­ern so­ci­ety,” Rosen said. “But of course they ac­cepted all the val­ues of that so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing slav­ery.”

While the ma­jor­ity of South­ern Jews owned slaves, most had only 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” slave owner.)

Ben­jamin was elected to the U.S. Se­nate from Louisiana, and gained a rep­u­ta­tion as a leg­endary or­a­tor and as an apol­o­gist for slav­ery. One mem­ber of Congress called him “an Is­raelite with Egyp­tian prin­ci­ples.” When the mo­ment of se­ces­sion came, Ben­jamin gave an epic fi­nal speech on the floor of the Se­nate, bid­ding “a re­spect­ful farewell” to his “brother sen­a­tors.”

Ben­jamin had many roles in the Con­fed­er­acy, mov­ing from at­tor­ney gen­eral to sec­re­tary of war to sec­re­tary of state. Rosen called him the “smartest per­son in the whole Con­fed­er­ate gov­ern­ment.”

Ben­jamin’s knack for work­ing be­hind the scenes, how­ever, and the in­flu­ence he held over Davis, led oth­ers in the Con­fed­er­ate Cab­i­net to dis­trust him. Many called him Davis’s “pet Jew.”

“He was dis­creet, loyal, a worka­holic, some­body you wanted on your side,” Rosen said. In his book, Rosen writes that Ben­jamin ne­go­ti­ated 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.

“He cer­tainly was the most im­por­tant per­son in the gov­ern­ment other than Davis,” Rosen added.

As the South be­gan to lose the war, Ben­jamin re­ceived much of the blame, though in truth he did as much as pos­si­ble to keep the re­bel­lion alive. His­to­ri­ans agree that he was un­duly made a scape­goat for the South’s mis­for­tunes in the war.

Pop­u­lar sen­ti­ment to­ward him de­clined only when, in the fi­nal days of the Con­fed­er­acy’s ex­is­tence, he fled for Eng­land by way of the Ba­hamas and es­caped per­se­cu­tion by the North. In London he be­came a lawyer, and Brit- ish his­to­ri­ans con­sider him a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to Bri­tish le­gal the­ory.

As far as leav­ing a mark on the South­ern Jewish com­mu­nity, Ben­jamin pretty much van­ished with­out a trace. Although he never hid his Jewish an­ces try, he made lit­tle to no ef­fort to es­tab­lish it as a part of his per­sonal life.

“Ben­jamin had a kind of am­biva­lence to­wards the Jewish com­mu­nity, mean­ing he never de­nied be­ing a Jew and never changed his name, but on the other hand his wife was not Jewish and his daugh­ter was not Jewish,” Sarna said.

Ben­jamin was held in low re­gard for another rea­son: Many his­to­ri­ans now sus­pect that he was gay. This hy­poth­e­sis, Sarna said, “ex­plains a lot of things.”

For one, Ben­jamin burned all his per­sonal doc­u­ments on his deathbed.

“Folks who were gay — well into the 20th cen­tury — were enor­mously self­con­scious about be­ing dis­cov­ered, and few of their pa­pers re­main,” Sarna said.

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.

De­spite all this, there are two cen­tral rea­sons that Ben­jamin has never been cast in bronze and set atop a gran­ite plat­form, and they have lit­tle to do with the bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tails of his life. One con­cerns the South­ern Jewish com­mu­nity, and the other the mo­ti­va­tions for build­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments in the first place.

Ben­jamin did as much as pos­si­ble to keep the re­bel­lion alive.

The ma­jor­ity of Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments were erected in the late 19th and early 20th cen­tury at the height of white back­lash against black po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion dur­ing Re­con­struc­tion. Ben­jamin, a politi­cian born in the West Indies, did not fit the nos­tal­gic at­trac­tion for Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle-hard­ness and un­shak­able South­ern iden­tity that was in vogue at that time.

“The memo­ri­al­iza­tion hap­pened long after the war, and it was done in a kind of way to evoke a ro­man­tic im­age of what the Con­fed­er­acy had been,” said Eric Gold­stein, a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Jewish his­tory at Emory Uni­ver­sity. “Of all the peo­ple you could choose to memo­ri­al­ize, Ben­jamin did not fit that mold.”

Josh Par­shall, a his­to­rian at the Goldring/Wold­en­berg In­sti­tute for South­ern Jewish Life, said that South­ern Jews — es­pe­cially fam­i­lies with deep South­ern roots — took part in this Con­fed­er­ate nos­tal­gia. It was a way not only of life, but also of stay­ing out of the path of white South­ern­ers.

“For those com­mu­ni­ties that had been in the South at the time of the Civil War, or who ar­rived shortly there­after, par­tic­i­pat­ing in the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the Con­fed­er­acy was a way of be­ing part of the lo­cal white com­mu­ni­ties,” Par­shall said.

How­ever, for var­i­ous rea­sons these com­mu­ni­ties were not in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing mon­u­ments of their own. A pop­u­lar opin­ion at the time was that Jews should not cre­ate “graven images” of fa­mous Jews, since it would defy the third of the Ten Com­mand­ments.

Par­shall also noted that the com­po­si­tion of South­ern Jews was chang­ing rapidly dur­ing the Con­fed­er­ate nos­tal­gia craze of the early 20th cen­tury.

Jews pour­ing into cities like At­lanta and Hous­ton from Eastern Europe had lit­tle truck with Con­fed­er­ate apol­o­gists. Ac­cord­ing to Rosen, the one Jewish com­mu­nity that might have put up a statue to the man — in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was raised — was too poor to memo­ri­al­ize much of any­thing: That city’s mon­u­ment to the Con­fed­er­acy wasn’t erected un­til 1932.

There was at least one at­tempt to make 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 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.

“The life of such a man ought to be an in­spi­ra­tion to mankind. To the mem­bers of the Jewish race, upon whom he shed such lus­ter, it ought to be par­tic­u­larly a la­bor of love to in­au­gu­rate and carry to suc­cess a sub­scrip­tion move­ment to make the mon­u­ment pos­si­ble,” the editorial added.

But when the statue of Davis was even­tu­ally erected in 1911 and the street ad­ja­cent to it re­named Jef­fer­son Davis Park­way, Ben­jamin’s like­ness was nowhere to be seen. It’s un­clear why.

The city of New Or­leans re­moved the Davis statue in May.

To­day, Ben­jamin’s legacy lives on in strange ways, even though he hasn’t been a fo­cus of the push­back against white su­prem­a­cists.

Ben­jamin’s face ap­pears on the Con­fed­er­acy’s $2 bill, which, is­sued in 1862, can fetch about $25 on eBay Inc. (The $1,000 bill, fea­tur­ing John C. Cal­houn and An­drew Jack­son, has sold for tens of thou­sands of dol­lars at auc­tions.)

Some “alt-right” con­spir­acy the­o­rists have tried to frame Ben­jamin as a Tro­jan horse for Jewish in­flu­ence in the Con­fed­er­acy. One Jewish “alt-right” blogger, known as Re­ac­tionary Jew, uses Ben­jamin’s face as his pro­file pic­ture on Twit­ter.

Rosen thinks it’s a shame that more Amer­i­can Jews do not know about the Jewish Con­fed­er­ate, even with Ben­jamin’s sup­port for slav­ery.

“He was the most suc­cess­ful Jewish fig­ure in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics un­til [Louis] Bran­deis,” Rosen, his bi­og­ra­pher, said.

“If there were a statue, I would de­fend it,” he added. “Maybe I’ll build a statue, now that you’ve called me.”


PIL­LARS OF HIS­TORY: The Ju­dah Ben­jamin house, in New Or­leans.


IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAP­PENED: Group por­trait of the Con­fed­er­ate cab­i­net in­clud­ing (from left) Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis, Vice Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Hamil­ton Stephens, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ju­dah P. Ben­jamin (third from left), Sec­re­tary of the Navy Stephen M. Mal­lory, Sec­re­tary of the Trea­sury C. G. Mem­minger, Sec­re­tary of War Leroy Pope Walker, Post­mas­ter John H. Reagan and Sec­re­tary of State Robert Toombs, seated and standing around ta­ble.

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