Biographical Fallacy

In a new biography of Judah P. Benjamin, a Southern Jew who served in the Confederate government, one man’s life can tell us only so much about the American Jewish encounter with slavery.

Richard Kreitner
February 3, 2022

Judah P. Benjamin

Alamy Stock Photo

Discussed in this essay: Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy, by James Traub. Yale University Press, 2021. 200 pages.

The day they drove old Dixie down—the first Sunday of April 1865—Alfred Paul, the French consul in Richmond, stopped by the office of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate secretary of state. Union forces had broken through rebel lines, and the city had begun to empty out. Benjamin had spent the day burning papers and packing bags, maintaining his famous ebullience. Ever-bullish about the cause, he tried to assure the consul that the evacuation was temporary; the Confederate government would return to Richmond within weeks. Paul was astonished: Didn’t Benjamin realize the war was over and the South had lost? As Paul later wrote in a letter, he couldn’t tell whether the absurd prediction was motivated by Benjamin’s “persisting illusion or by a lack of sincerity, two things which characterize this statesman.”

It remains difficult to distinguish, in considering Benjamin’s life, between the striver’s earnest self-delusion and the schemer’s penchant for self-disguise. How invested was he in the Confederate cause and the system of human bondage it sought to perpetuate? What did he truly believe? And how were those beliefs shaped, if at all, by his highly attenuated Jewishness—the trait for which he is most commonly known today?

The task of addressing these questions has grown more pressing as pop-culture representations and public debates have turned Benjamin into a stand-in for the broader American Jewish relationship to slavery. In The Plot Against America, for example, Philip Roth’s fascist-friendly character Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (a Charleston native and son of a Confederate veteran) professes the “highest regard” for Benjamin. In reality, American Jews have scrambled to distance themselves from the man. The only monument ever built to honor him, a concrete slab in Charlotte, North Carolina, was removed in 2020 at the urging of the city’s profoundly embarrassed Jewish community. As more or less the only file that comes up in our mental searches for “slave-owning American Jews,” Benjamin has become the favorite object on which to offload any sense of guilt.

But even as Benjamin’s story has assumed symbolic importance, a persistent lack of biographical sources has frustrated those seeking to interpret it. Evasive and inscrutable in life, he did everything he could to avoid becoming better known in death, including destroying almost all of his papers—not only while fleeing Richmond, but again two decades later, before his death in Paris in 1884. He once told a journalist who hoped to write a biography that he “should much prefer that no ‘Life,’ not even a Magazine article, should ever be written about me.” He didn’t get his wish, but for all we know about what really made him tick, he might as well have.

In a slim new biography for Yale University Press’s “Jewish Lives” series, veteran journalist James Traub—a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of a well-regarded John Quincy Adams biography, among other books—tries to explain how the charismatic, talented Benjamin managed to become the consummate Confederate insider while remaining a conspicuous outsider in the land of Christian Southern nationalism. Traub’s pared-down narrative allows us to appreciate anew Benjamin’s improbable position as a Caribbean-born Jew in Jefferson Davis’s rebel court.

Even so, Traub’s tight focus on Benjamin keeps him from exploring the larger questions his subject poses. Benjamin’s ambiguous motivations for serving in the Confederate government can tell us only so much about the American Jewish encounter with slavery and the position of Jews in the nation’s racial hierarchy. If his story shows how the institution of slavery was shaped, in a small way, by the contributions of one Jewish individual, it does little to illuminate how slavery’s legacy and the systemic benefits of white supremacy have influenced the lives of all American Jews. In clearing the cobwebs off the little evidence we do have about Benjamin and dispensing with past biographers’ magnolia-scented smarm, Traub has succeeded in offering a valuable account of one man’s colorful and confounding life. But his judicious reconsideration ultimately serves less as a reminder of what we might learn by studying Benjamin in isolation than as an illustration of what we can’t.

Though little new material on Benjamin has surfaced in recent decades, a fresh treatment has long been needed. Previous studies—by Pierce Butler (1907), Robert Douthat Meade (1943), and Eli Evans (1988), all proud sons of the South—have been salvage attempts of one kind or another, efforts to rescue Benjamin from the obscurity to which he has been relegated, both by Lost Cause apologists uncomfortable with his Jewishness and by American Jews ashamed of his legacy. Butler and Meade, who romanticized the antebellum South, sought to bolster the profile—and defend the long-doubted loyalty—of a high-ranking Confederate politician. Evans, a researcher focused on Southern Jewish history, overstated the import of Benjamin’s Jewishness in an attempt to celebrate him as a “pivotal figure in American Jewish history,” one who “broke down the barriers of prejudice.” Unlike these previous chroniclers, Traub refrains from engaging in fantasies to support his conclusions. For example, while Evans spends four pages trying to buttress a thinly-sourced, wildly implausible account that Benjamin once read from the Torah in a Richmond synagogue, Traub simply notes that his subject “demonstrated no interest whatsoever in religious observance,” and moves on.

In place of new facts, Traub’s biography offers useful analyses and suggestive interpretations of what we do know about Benjamin. His is the first study to acknowledge Benjamin’s long-rumored homosexuality, and to reinterpret some of the more perplexing aspects of his life—such as his decades-long, seemingly celibate estrangement from an openly unfaithful wife, and his suspiciously intimate relationship with her handsome younger brother—with that possibility in mind. This alone justifies a new look at the record, and Traub is a sensitive reader, ever attentive to Benjamin’s habitual modes and methods of evasion. Describing the evidence that Benjamin was gay as “circumstantial, but hardly trivial,” Traub concludes: “Nothing else that we know of his life would seem to justify such self-concealment.”

Most importantly, Traub undermines previous biographers’ efforts to exonerate or excuse Benjamin’s involvement in the slave system, which in fact defined his life from the start. He was born in 1811 on the island of St. Croix, a vastly profitable British sugar plantation, to Sephardic parents who had moved there from London. In 1822, when the family moved to Charleston, South Carolina—where the community of between 3,000 and 6,000 Jews was then the biggest in the United States—they settled just blocks from the South’s largest slave market. The Benjamins, who were proprietors of a dry goods shop, had owned slaves since before Judah’s birth, as did nearly all of Charleston’s Jewish residents. Traub notes that a former president of the synagogue to which the family belonged, Congregation Beth Elohim, had sold slaves on the auction block.

After a stint studying law at Yale, Benjamin took off for New Orleans, where he married the daughter of a Creole businessman who wanted his new son-in-law to convert to Catholicism. Though he held himself aloof from the city’s growing Jewish population and never joined a synagogue, Benjamin refused. His vestigial Jewishness did not prevent him from winning election to the US Senate in 1852, or from gaining the esteem of powerful gentiles, including his Senate colleague, future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. A rural planter with Southern roots going back to the Revolution, Davis could not have been more unlike the urban immigrant Benjamin—yet he trusted his judgment implicitly. According to Traub, after the rebel government formed in 1861, the two men functioned “as one joint mind.” Successively the Confederate attorney general, secretary of war, and finally secretary of state, Benjamin wielded power behind the scenes as Davis’s close adviser, ghostwriter of his speeches, and, effectively, acting president when Davis was incapacitated or out of town.

Still, over the course of the war, Benjamin could not entirely evade his otherness. Running interference for Davis meant serving as a scapegoat for nearly every Confederate setback—food shortages, losses on the battlefield, the failure to win recognition or loans from European powers. Amid a war-time surge of antisemitism in both the North and the South, Benjamin’s critics zeroed in on his Jewishness. As early as February 1861, Howell Cobb, a leading Georgia politician, commented in a letter, “A grander rascal than this Jew Benjamin does not exist in the Confederacy.” Benjamin was increasingly seen as “a rank outsider who had nefariously wormed his way into the heart of power,” Traub writes. He also become a scapegoat in the North, where his role overseeing the Confederate secret service—and the discovery that men in his pay had ties to John Wilkes Booth—made him a target of wrath in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination. (Traub notes that “no evidence emerged” linking Booth directly to Davis or Benjamin, but fails to remind the reader of all those documents that Benjamin burned on his way out of Richmond.) By then, Benjamin was beyond his critics’ reach, having escaped to England following the fall of Richmond.

While Traub is clear about the antisemitism Benjamin experienced, he largely avoids the temptation to use Benjamin’s outsider status as a dubious moral shield. Benjamin’s earlier chroniclers sometimes suggested that he harbored a secret—and perhaps even Jewishly-derived—opposition to the slave system. “A member of a race that had known more than its share of oppression,” Robert Douthat Meade mused, “did that make him sympathetic with the Negro?” Traub finds no evidence for this. “[I]t would be foolish,” he concludes, “to imagine a man somehow divided between his noble and ignoble impulses.” Benjamin’s ownership of other people and his success as a pro-slavery spokesman were defining features of his life, not merely a performance put on for the sake of his own advancement.

But if the book offers a worthy corrective, one could wish it were more of one. Traub acknowledges that sugar plantations like Benjamin’s ruined human bodies faster than any other kind of work, and that replenishing his labor force would have involved Benjamin directly in the domestic slave trade and the break-up of families. But he twice mentions without dispute the contention of Benjamin’s first chronicler, Pierce Butler, repeated in every biography since, that he was a relatively benevolent slave owner. Butler claimed that formerly enslaved survivors of Benjamin’s plantation, which was worked by 140 men, women, and children, shared “none but kindly memories, and romantic legends of the days of glory on the old place.” A little more critical historiography from Traub might have gone a long way toward dismantling the myths that have arisen in the vacuum left by Benjamin’s consignment of his secrets to the fire.

On the whole, a less mythic interpretation of Benjamin might require abandoning the narrow biographical lens altogether. Traub is well aware that Benjamin wasn’t the only Jewish participant in the slave economy. He notes that a “small number of Jewish shippers and sea captains plied the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century”—actually, in numbers roughly proportionate to their share of the colonial population—and that most Jews in the antebellum South owned as many people as they could afford to. But Traub fails to connect Benjamin’s personal biography to any larger discussion about how slavery and its legacy have shaped the American Jewish experience. Though he draws on the work of the great rabbi-historian Bertram Korn, who created a record of all the Jews who owned slaves in New Orleans, Traub misses the deeper, more disturbing observation that Korn delivered in a 1961 paper: The truth about slavery and American Jews was that it had far more impact on them than the other way around.

In particular, Jews benefited from the way racial hostility in the South was directed at Black people rather than themselves. Conventional progressive accounts such as Eric L. Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness (2006) and Karen Brodkin’s How Jews Became White Folks (1997) tend to suggest that white Jews, in their quest to assimilate, took their place in America’s racial hierarchy in, respectively, the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. But Korn’s research shows how American Jews in fact began benefitting from such bargains much earlier. “The Negroes acted as an escape-valve in Southern society,” Korn writes. “The Jews gained in status and security from the presence of this large mass of defenseless victims who were compelled to absorb all of the prejudices which might otherwise have been expressed more frequently in anti-Jewish sentiment.”

Traub does note that, for the burgeoning Jewish community in antebellum New Orleans, “their whiteness trumped their otherness.” But he fails to take note of the fact that this was true not just in the racially fluid port city where Benjamin made his name, but also elsewhere in the South, and eventually in every corner of the country. Korn quotes the Romanian Jewish writer I.J. Benjamin (no relation), who observed this phenomenon while touring through the American South in the 1850s: “Since the Israelites there did not do the humbler kinds of work which the Negro did,” they were “quickly received among the upper classes, and early rose to high political rank.” In other words, while American slavery would have looked much the same in the absence of Jews, the reception of Jewish immigrants like the Benjamins would have been quite different had the presence of slavery not put them on the right side of a stark color line.

Over time, Judah Benjamin has become almost as much a scapegoat for Jews as he once was for gentiles—a placeholder for complicity with goyish iniquity. Yet it’s not only Benjamin’s success but that of American Jews writ large that has been predicated from the beginning on the oppression and exploitation of a group even more hated and feared than they were. Traub’s book, despite its limitations, helps us see that the long history of American Jews’ commitment to white supremacy neither begins nor ends with the story of one statesman of the Confederacy.

Richard Kreitner is working on a book about American Jews and slavery. He is a contributing writer for The Nation and the author of Break It Up: Secession, Division, and the Secret History of America’s Imperfect Union (2020).