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Judah Philip Benjamin

Benjamin, Judah Philip, 1811–84, Confederate statesman and British barrister, b. Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands, of Jewish parents. His family moved (c.1813) to Wilmington, N.C., and finally settled (1822) in Charleston, S.C. A precocious youth, Benjamin entered Yale at the age of 14 but left (1827) early in his junior year. He went to New Orleans in 1828, worked for a notary, taught English, and studied French and the law in his spare time. Admitted to the bar in Dec., 1832, he published (1834), with his friend Thomas Slidell, a digest of Louisiana appeal cases that enhanced his reputation as a rising young lawyer. His practice soon made him rich enough to become a sugar planter as well.

Benjamin, a prominent Whig, served in both branches of the state legislature, was a delegate to two state constitutional conventions, and in 1852 was elected to the U.S. Senate. On the dissolution of the Whig party because of the slavery issue, he publicly proclaimed himself a Democrat (May 2, 1856), and two years later he was reelected senator. One of the ablest defenses of Southern policy was presented in the Senate by Benjamin on Dec. 31, 1860. On Feb. 4, 1861, after Louisiana's secession, he resigned his seat.

In the new Southern government, Benjamin first served as attorney general, was appointed secretary of war in Nov., 1861 (he had been acting secretary since September), and from Mar., 1862, to the end of the Civil War was secretary of state. Though not popular with the public, he was an intimate friend of Jefferson Davis and was known in the North as "the brains of the Confederacy." As secretary of war he was an able administrator, but was severely criticized—for the most part unjustly—for Confederate defeats early in 1862, particularly the loss of Roanoke Island, N.C. After Davis promoted him to head the state department, Benjamin worked unceasingly but unsuccessfully to secure European recognition of the Confederacy. In Feb., 1865, he proposed that slaves who willingly joined the Confederate ranks be freed.

Upon the collapse of the Confederacy, Benjamin escaped by way of Florida and the West Indies to England and there established a new career in the law. He was called to the bar in 1866 and won immediate recognition with A Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property (1868). On his retirement early in 1883 he was universally acknowledged to have been in the front rank of his profession. He died and was buried in Paris, where his wife, who was a Louisiana Creole, and his daughter had made their home since the 1840s.

See biographies by P. Butler (1981) and E. Evans (1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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