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The Three Lives of Judah P. Benjamin

Born in the West Indies; Secretary of State in the Confederate Government, Benjamin ended his career as a successful barrister in London. By Charles Curran.

Judah Philip Benjamin must be bracketed with Disraeli, who was his contemporary, as the ablest Jewish politician ever born under the British flag. But his career outdid Disraeli’s in audacity. Benjamin lived three lives in one. Born in the British West Indies, he went as a child to the United States, made a fortune at the American Bar, became a Senator, and refused a seat on the Supreme Court bench.

Then he became Attorney-General and afterwards Secretary of State in the Confederate Government set up by the seceding Southern States. When the South was beaten, he fled to London. Penniless at the age of fifty-five, he went to the English Bar, where he made another fortune. He retired from practice at seventy, and took his riches to Paris. There he rejoined the wife who had left him nearly half a century before, with whom he spent the rest of his days. As one obituary said, his was ‘a life as varied as an Eastern tale’.

Like Disraeli, Benjamin was descended from Sephardic Jews of Spanish origin. His father was born at St. Nevis in the West Indies; he came to London during the Napoleonic wars, and married Rebecca Mendes, daughter of a Cheapside trader, whom he took back to the West Indies. They went to St. Croix, in the Virgin Islands. Here Judah Philip Benjamin was born on August 6th, 1811. He was his parents’ second child, their first son, and a British subject by birth—since Britain had seized St. Croix from Denmark twelve months before.

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