Judah Philip Benjamin was attorney general of the Confederate States of America under President Jefferson Davis. Though described by many as a brilliant, self-made man, he was also characterized as the "dark prince of the Confederacy" in Robert W. Service's poem "John Brown's Body."
Benjamin was born August 6, 1811, on St. Croix Island, in the British West Indies. His parents, Philip Benjamin and Rebecca de Mendes Benjamin, were Sephardic Jews who had immigrated to the West Indies from Spain. Hearing that Jews were tolerated and allowed to prosper in the U.S. Carolinas, the family moved to the United States in 1813, settling in Charleston, South Carolina. Young Benjamin attended the Fayetteville Academy, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and entered Yale in 1825 at the age of fourteen. He was the top student in his class when he was expelled in 1827. He was charged with stealing from a fellow student, but the allegations were never proved. Though Benjamin was not an observant Jew, historians acknowledge that anti-Semitism was probably at the heart of the charges and his dismissal from school.
Following his expulsion, Benjamin moved to New Orleans, where he clerked in a commercial house and studied law until he was admitted to the bar in 1832. (A commercial house of the early 1800s was usually involved in the financial transactions around the movement of goods, i.e., lending, bonding, insuring, fees for transport, rent for storage, and contracts of sales.) While studying, he supplemented his income by giving English lessons to the French Creole aristocracy. One of his pupils, Natalie St. Martin, became his wife in a Roman Catholic ceremony in 1833. Though his wife was extravagant and notoriously promiscuous, Benjamin indulged her. Many of his peers commented that Benjamin's
Judah Philip Benjamin.
wealth could be attributed more to the demands of his wife than to his personal ambitions. For her, he acquired the Belle Chase sugar plantation and an elegant townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
His real estate purchases were made possible by a growing and successful law practice. By 1834 he had secured his place in the local legal community through a joint publishing venture with Thomas Slidell. Their Digest of the Reported Decisions of the Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans and of the Supreme Court of Louisiana was widely used. Benjamin's national reputation as a lawyer was established by his participation in a case involving the brig Creole. His brief?which reviewed the status of SLAVERY under both INTERNATIONAL LAW and U.S. domestic law?was printed as a pamphlet and widely circulated. In this more liberal period of...