Book Review: ‘Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy’ | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Book Review: ‘Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy’ 


I am voice texting this with a broken hand. Adjustments are by way of hunt and peck. 

I’m weirdly enjoying the challenge of making a newspaper without the ability to type. Having just finished a new biography of Judah Benjamin, maybe I’m taking in a bit of his ability to reinvent himself and find a new path, no matter the challenge. 

But there’s a high wall before the inspiration we can take from this 1800s lawyer who was yes, brilliant, and yes, accomplished. That looming wall is that he was a Jew who served as President Jefferson Davis’ right-hand man in the Confederate government. 

“Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy,” by James Traub, is insufficiently named. Benjamin is George W. Bush’s Dick Cheney, Sherlock Holmes’ Watson, and Han Solo’s Chewbacca for Davis in the Confederacy‘s Civil War effort. 

I know this because of Traub’s excellent book, which reads like a movie about a Jew on the wrong side of history.  

I’ve always wondered how even the small number of Jews in the old South could condone slavery, because we were slaves once in Egypt. What in the world could Passover at a rare Jewish plantation have been like? 

When a fresh book on Benjamin came out, I grabbed it. I love the book; I can’t say I love what I learned about our people in that time and place. 

It turns out Jews can lie to themselves and rationalize, just like anybody else. 

In any case, Benjamin was not a religious Jew; he was not even what we today would call a cultural Jew. He worked to fit in with Christian gentleman and paper over his ethnicity. He was the subject of some antisemitism and was admitted to inner circles despite his Jewishness, only because of his social and lawyerly skills. 

Today, Jewish Otherness is making faint new inroads, in a way that I have not previously experienced in my lifetime. Benjamin’s total assimilation, without full acceptance, seems a tale of a future we don’t need. 

Before the war, Benjamin was the South’s largest Jewish owner of people, a lawyer who had moved away from the Jewish community, and a US senator. In the Senate, another member reportedly chastised him for supporting slavery as a Jew whose people had known slavery. 

During the Civil War, Benjamin served as the Confederacy’s secretary of war, then secretary of state. It was he who delivered unpopular orders from the president, he who told Southern generals they could not have the resources they clamored for. He could not explain it was because he had no resources to give, for fear of the enemy finding out. 

After the war, Benjamin escaped to England, where he became a respected attorney in a society where lineage and connections were everything. He had none. 

Benjamin’s pluckiness, his resilience, his ability to glide through a very non-Jewish world and make loads of money, it’s intoxicating. 

It’s too dismissive, too easy, to let him off as a mere product of his times. As Traub points out, he was worldly, and the rest of the world knew better. Benjamin could have used his talents for the Jewish people or against slavery, or at least not in its favor. 

His legacy is a disappointing something-to-behold.

Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.