Judah P. Benjamin, Legal Giant of His Age
Only a year after the fall of the Confederacy, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin had become a British barrister – by 1868 he had risen to Queen’s Counsel. An advocate of using former slaves in Southern armies, Benjamin saw that after the Confederate Congress approved of this in March 1865, no longer could the North claim it was fighting a war to free the slaves. Benjamin was severely injured in a streetcar crash in May 1880; against his physician’s advice, he returned to his law practice but was forced to retire in 1883. He died ten months later in Paris.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Judah P. Benjamin, Legal Giant of His Age
“Judah Philip Benjamin, Louisiana’s most illustrious lawyer, was born a British subject of Jewish descent on the island of St. Thomas, West Indies, on August 6, 1811. As a child he moved with his parents to Charleston, South Carolina, and was educated at Fayette Academy, [Fayetteville] North Carolina, with two years at Yale. He left Yale at seventeen to accept a position with a commercial house in New Orleans. Poor but resolute, he supplemented his wages as a tutor in English.
Later employed as a clerk in a notary’s office Benjamin prepared for the law and passed the State bar examinations in 1832, just as he came of age. He gained something of a local reputation because of a published digest of decisions of the [United States] Supreme Court and rose rapidly at the bar. His part in the celebrated Creole case, involving delicate questions of international law, gave him national standing.
In his prosperity he purchased a plantation and made a study of sugar chemistry and new refining processes.
He was elected to the State legislature as a Whig in 1842, and ten years later to the United States Senate, serving two consecutive terms. He was the leading spirit in drafting the State constitution in 1852.
Active in the commercial development of New Orleans, Benjamin was one of the organizers of the Jackson Railway, now the Illinois Central. He projected a railway across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico, and was of the opinion that the Compromise of 1850 placed the South at a national disadvantage that only an outlet to the trade of the Pacific could overcome.
When Lincoln was elected president, Benjamin advocated secession, and shortly after the withdrawal of Louisiana, he made a brilliant speech of resignation to the Senate.
Three weeks later [President] Jefferson Davis called him to the Confederacy’s cabinet as attorney general. Phlegmatic in temperament, Benjamin’s personality was a complement to the President’s high-strung spirit. Davis made him secretary of war in 1861, just when the problem of obtaining munitions from Europe had become acute . . . [and later] Davis appointed him secretary of state.
In 1864-65, Benjamin believed the cause of the Confederacy so acute that only the enrollment of slaves as volunteers, with the promise of freedom, could stem the tide. [After Congress had approved the use of black troops] an agent was sent to London, promising general emancipation in return for British aid in lifting the federal blockade. He was told that he had come too late.
When Richmond fell, Benjamin fled with the President’s party [but before Davis’ capture], Benjamin, unable travel farther on a horse, left his chief and escaped from the coast of Florida in an open boat. After many vicissitudes he made his way to the West Indies and to England.
At fifty-five he started life all over as a student of English law at Lincoln’s Inn in London. With a little money he eked out a livelihood as a writer for the Daily Telegraph. In recognition of his talents, the Benchers of his Inn of Court waived the usual three-years’ rule, calling him to the bar after less than five months.
Liverpool was the market for Southern cotton, and its business leaders had many connections with the merchants and shippers of New Orleans. Benjamin located in that circuit just as the last of his little fortune was swept away by the failure of his bank in New Orleans.
He had been engaged in the preparation of a Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property which he published in 1868. Retainers immediately poured in upon him. He was made Queen’s Counsel, qualified to practice in all courts of common law and equity, and established himself without superior in cases on appeal.
His annual fees reached seventy-five thousand dollars, and his practiced increased until he was forced to confine his talents to cases before the House of Lords and Privy Council. Between 1872 and 1882, he appeared as counsel in no less than 136 important cases which came from every part of the British Empire.
Lawyer and statesman, known as the “Brains of the Confederacy,” Judah P. Benjamin was one of the legal giants of his age. His source of power lay in his profound knowledge of the law, his keen sense for analysis, and his faculty for succinct statement. Dynamic in determination, he rose again and again from defeat and poverty to success and fortune.”
(Judah P. Benjamin; Sons of the South, Clayton Rand, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1961, excerpts, pg. 112)