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  • “The Ultimate Step:” Judah P. Benjamin and Secession
  • Geoffrey D. Cunningham (bio)

Judah Philip Benjamin’s singular life and career have long attracted interest. An antebellum Southern politician of Jewish background, Benjamin rose to prominence during the nation’s greatest political crisis. Given Benjamin’s compelling story and involvement in the weightiest events of the era, it is not surprising that three biographers and the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, who designated Benjamin the “dark prince” of the South in his 1927 poem “John Brown’s Body,” have written about his life.1 Owing to their efforts, we know about Benjamin’s identity as a Southern Jew and his role in the Confederate cabinet, but comparatively less about his developing attitude toward secession. By taking a second look at Benjamin’s state and U.S. Senate career, a surprising portrait emerges. Although Benjamin is conventionally portrayed by scholars as irresolute with regard to secession, his public addresses reveal a different picture and help to cast light on his identity as an antebellum Southern politician. In fact, Benjamin’s speeches, which comprise the largest extant body of sources, reveal Benjamin to have embraced the logic of secession early in his career. While never a fire-eater or an extremist, Benjamin publicly embraced secession’s logic with remarkable rapidity. During his first address to his Senate colleagues in 1855, Benjamin confessed: “Every day I am more and more persuaded [conflict] is becoming inevitable.”2 By his second address, Benjamin had moved from discussing the likelihood of conflict to raising the specter of secession: “When those guarantees shall fail, and not till then, will the injured, outraged South throw her sword into the scale of her rights, and appeal to the God of battles to do her justice.”3 Thus, as early as Benjamin’s second address to the Senate in 1855, he was contemplating the idea of secession. Unlike Jefferson Davis, about whom poet Robert Penn Warren wrote, “Even . . . as a leading [End Page 1] exponent of Southern rights, [Davis] found it hard to face the logically ultimate step of secession,” Benjamin evinced no such public reservations when the time came in 1860.4 In fact, with President Abraham Lincoln’s election, Benjamin unreservedly took the “ultimate step.”

Piercing the public persona of Judah Benjamin’s colorful life and intriguing career is a nearly insurmountable task. Concerned about his legacy, Benjamin destroyed nearly all of his personal papers.5 Given that fact, every study of Benjamin is faced with the difficulty of limited sources. The first biography of Benjamin, Judah P. Benjamin, written by Pierce Butler in 1907, amassed previously uncollected materials from Benjamin’s relatives and acquaintances, including journalist Francis Lawley of the London Times. Butler’s work remained the only biography of Benjamin for more than thirty years, until 1943, when Robert Douthat Meade published Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Statesman. In supplanting Butler’s work, Meade focused on Benjamin’s role as a Confederate politician, and evaluated Benjamin’s tenure in the cabinet. With the passage of time, Meade offered a more measured historical assessment of Benjamin’s role, and as a result, his work has been brought back into print.6 After Meade’s work, it took nearly thirty years for another treatment of Benjamin to appear. Published in 1988, Eli Evans’ Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate analyzes the role that Judaism played in Benjamin’s life. Drawing upon his own identity as a Southern Jew, Evans writes that his work is an attempt to restore the “hidden Jewish experience” of Benjamin’s life in order to “clarify some of what has been impenetrable about the Confederate story.” “At times,” he continues, “I provide my own insights in the book, because I cannot help but feel that even though our boyhoods were separated by more than a hundred years, Benjamin is not remote. He is somehow familiar because there are certain changeless verities to growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt and passing for white in that mysterious hinterland of America.”7 Although [End Page 2] Benjamin’s public persona was secular, Evans argues, “to presume Benjamin a nonbeliever by his public acts represents a fundamental error in...


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