Judah P. Benjamin
The Confederacy’s most highly placed Jew
Philip Benjamin (1780–1853) and his wife Rebecca de Mendes (d. 1847) came to Charleston around 1821, with their daughter Rebecca and son Judah (1811–1889), who had been born in St. Croix. By 1822, Philip was operating a dry-goods store at this location; the family may have lived above. Philip bought the property in 1825, the same year fourteen-year-old Judah departed for Yale College, and lost it in 1827, the year he granted his wife the right to act as a sole trader, unobligated by her husband’s debts. Philip was one of the original members of the Reformed Society of Israelites but was expelled from that group, possibly on account of his inability to pay dues. After three years, Judah left Yale without graduating, and moved to New Orleans with his older cousin Henry M. Hyams. Benjamin studied law, was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1832, and gained recognition as an outstanding attorney, specializing in commercial cases. He entered state politics, ascended the social ladder by acquiring a sugar plantation, and, in 1853, was elected to the U.S. Senate.
During the Civil War Judah Benjamin served the Confederacy as attorney general, secretary of war, and then secretary of state; his face adorned numerous bond issues and the Confederate two dollar bill. Benjamin had married a Catholic and as an adult did not practice Judaism, but nevertheless was the target of anti-Semitic attacks throughout his public life. After the Civil War, he fled to England, where he launched a second career as a successful barrister and author of a legal text, popularly known as Benjamin on Sales, which became a classic in both Britain and America.