You recall that I’ve been corresponding with the Gamble House State Park director about the Park’s Judah P. Benjamin Memorial. I’ve been blogging about it. Here are the earlier posts:
In my last correspondence, I offered to meet with Mr. Kiser, but he didn’t suggest a time. Therefore, I have written a couple of essays for him. I intend for these to form a brochure or signs to be distributed or displayed at the park. The first essay, “Who Was Judah P. Benjamin?”, is in this post. “Why Do the People and Government of Florida Honor Judah P. Benjamin at the Gamble House Park?” will be in the next one.
I haven’t sent these yet because I would like your advice, suggestions you or readers might have about the content or writing.
Who Was Judah P. Benjamin?
Judah P. Benjamin was born in 1811 to British parents in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands. His parents brought him as a child to the United States. He attended Yale University, where he earned a reputation as a brilliant student, but left under unfortunate but obscure circumstances before graduating. He went to New Orleans to seek his fortune, arriving in the late 1820s.
At the time, lawyers did not require formal legal education and there was no bar examination. Aspiring attorneys would study law through apprenticeship to a practicing lawyer. Benjamin entered the practice of law, mainly dealing in commercial matters. Handling several high-profile cases, he made a name for himself, won a Creole bride, and began to amass his fortune. He entered local politics as a Whig and served in the Louisiana Assembly and in Louisiana constitutional conventions.
Benjamin invested in a sugar cane plantation near the Mississippi River south of New Orleans and, thus, became the owner of slaves. His biographers do not provide details of the slave population, the working conditions, or his treatment of these unfortunate people. Sugar plantations, however, had a reputation for heavier work and poorer conditions compared to the unfortunate circumstances of slaves on Deep South cotton plantations or Upper South tobacco plantations. At this plantation, which he operated with a partner, he worked to improve the technical methods of sugar production, and he built a mansion. Rather, his slaves built a mansion for him. Slave plantations were a source of great fortunes for the planters across the South in those days.
During these years, the 1830s and 1840s, he continued his legal practice, earning a national reputation, and being admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. The Louisiana Legislature appointed him to the United States Senate in 1852, and re-appointed him in 1858. Remarkably, he continued to argue cases before the Supreme Court while a sitting Senator and won many of them.
History remembers him as a Senator for his oratory, both his ornate language typical of that day and his melodious and pleasant voice, and for his staunch and effective defense of the Southern institution of slavery. In one speech, he argued that slavery was not a “peculiar institution” at all, which was a common term of slavery apologists. Indeed, he rehearsed history to remind his audience that slavery was common in the ancient world. Ancient Egypt, as we know from Exodus, Athens and the other Greek city-states, the Roman Republic and Empire were all slave societies. In those days, however, slavery was usually the result of warfare, with Europeans enslaving one another, and not an institution by which those of one race enslaved another. Benjamin argued that slavery was not a special creature of certain American states’ laws, or even of the United States Constitution, although both recognized the property rights of white citizens in black, and native American, persons. Indeed, Benjamin criticized the infamous, to us, 3/5th clause of the Constitution, which gave representation in Congress to citizens’ property. That clause suggested that slaves were, at least, something different than mere property, but partially persons. “Why do we not also offer representation to citizen’s property, such as oxen or horses?” This argument supported the now notorious Dred Scott decision of 1854 that declared that no black person, free or slave, could ever be a citizen. Benjamin also argued that slavery could not be ended without the freed slaves rising in murderous revenge against their white masters. Indeed, Southern whites feared the possibility of slave revolts and employed ferocious punishments to protect themselves.
When some Southern white planters and other Southerners rejected the results of the presidential election of 1860, they rose in armed rebellion against the government of the United States. Irregular armed militias seized federal property, including arsenals, across the South, and some states, including Benjamin’s Louisiana, issued secession proclamations even before Abraham Lincoln took office in March, 1861. In that month, Benjamin gave his final Senate speech and resigned that office. Shortly after Lincoln assumed office, rebels opened fire with artillery against Charleston harbor’s Ft. Sumter, thus beginning the Civil War.
The Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, asked Benjamin to serve as Attorney General. Within a year, Davis appointed Benjamin Secretary of War, and a year later still, appointed him Secretary of State. History records that Benjamin served in these posts with distinction, and loyally and effectively served Davis, who he had known from their days in the United States Senate.
When Confederate General Robert E. Lee abandoned Richmond on April 3, 1865, what remained of the Confederate civilian leadership fled too. Benjamin remained with Davis, Davis’s wife, and several officials as they escaped to Georgia. As Davis hoped to reach Texas where there were still Confederate armed forces and Benjamin planned to escape to England, they parted. Davis was captured by Union cavalry forces.
In an adventuresome and eventful journey involving disguises, alibies, gold sewn into clothing, and speaking French, Benjamin reached the Gamble Plantation, then owned by Captain Archibald McNeill, a blockade runner. There he hid from Union pursuers, narrowly escaping detection by naval and land forces. After a week or so, McNeill smuggled him out of Florida to the British controlled Bahamas, avoiding both naval pursuers and sinking.
He reached England, where, remarkably, he resumed his career in the law. His legal career as a barrister in England was successful, and he wrote important scholarly works on English law. His wife and daughter had been living in Paris for many years, and he occasionally paid visits to them. It was in Paris that he died in 1884.
Benjamin’s parents were Jewish, and he was an unobservant but acknowledged Jew throughout his adult life. His Jewish ancestry was well-known and used by enemies to attack him and admirers to praise him. To modern minds, it seems strange that a Jewish person would be a supporter of slavery. Indeed, black slaves favored the stories in Exodus and hoped that the Lord would one day favor them as He had the ancient Jews. Yet, the Bible nowhere condemns slavery itself as immoral, while it acknowledges that slaves are unhappy and unfortunate. The Jewish Passover Seder, a ceremonial ritual dinner, celebrates the freedom of the ancient Hebrew slaves, but in its traditional form contains no wish for freedom for others.