Judah Benjamin: Marginalized Outsider or Admitted Insider?

DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6478.2015.00702.x
Date01 March 2015
Published date01 March 2015
JOURNAL OF LAW AND SOCIETY
VOLUME 42, NUMBER 1, MARCH 2015
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 150±72
Judah Benjamin: Marginalized Outsider or
Admitted Insider?
Catharine MacMillan*
Judah Benjamin (1811±1884) was one of the greatest of nineteenth-
century lawyers. This article analyses how a young man who might
have been marginalized in society because of the circumstances of his
birth, ethnic origin, and religious identity rose to prominence in law,
politics, and business in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In June, 1883 an extraordinary dinner was held in the Inner Temple. Presided
over by the Attorney General, Sir Henry James, two hundred members of the
English bench and bar gathered to honour one they recognized as their
leading barrister, Judah Benjamin. The event was extraordinary not only in
the rarity of such tributes but because the subject of this tribute had arrived
as an outsider eighteen years earlier. Benjamin had begun life in the West
Indies, the son of an impecunious Jewish merchant with an often precarious
and itinerant existence. By his retirement, Benjamin had dominated the legal
professions of the United States and the United Kingdom, written a major
English law treatise, acquired fame (or infamy) as a politician in mid-century
America, and run a sugar plantation. His obituarist's statement that he had
led a `life [that] was as various as an Eastern tale'
1
acknowledged
Benjamin's success yet hinted that he was something of an outsider.
150
*School of Law, University of Reading, Foxhill House, Whiteknights Road,
Reading RG6 7BA, England
c.macmillan@reading.ac.uk
I would like to thank Georgia Chadwick for her help with the Louisiana cases, JoAnne
Sweeny for her help with the United States Supreme Court cases, and Margaret Polk for
her assistance with the New Orleans commercial court cases.
1Times, 9 May 1884, 10.
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School
A CHALLENGING BIOGRAPHICAL SUBJECT
This article examines aspects of Benjamin's remarkable life to determine
how an outsider moved from the margins of society to acquire influence and
the nature of the influence acquired. Benjamin was an outsider who became
an insider at the top of his chosen professions. Benjamin remains an enigma
to historians, an important character who defied attempts to produce critical
biographies of himself. `[O]ne of the most secretive men who ever lived',
2
he was buried in PeÁre Lachaise cemetery in Paris under his wife's family's
name. He destroyed his papers to deliberately thwart prospective biographers
fearing that his life would be construed according to their prejudices.
3
While
biographies exist,
4
Benjamin succeeded in preventing a critical assessment
of himself and his various roles. This success presents methodological
challenges in critically reconstructing his life and assessing its significance.
A subject who leaves personal papers bequeaths biographers with the
material from which a framework of the life can be constructed. In many
instances these papers provide insight into the thoughts and emotions of the
subject. They also provide links to the people and events of the subject's era,
links that allow the biographer to set the life in context and assess the context
of the subject's life. A subject without personal papers entirely deprives the
biographer of significant internal insights into the subject and also hampers
the contextualization and critical appraisal of the life in question. It is the
case, though, that the subject who leaves personal papers often leaves to the
future a particular view of herself and impedes a truly candid and critical
perspective. Benjamin's biographers have been hampered by a lack of a
corpus of person al papers that ha s, in turn, led to an u nfortunate
marginalization of his importance in the legal and political histories of the
nineteenth-century trans-Atlant ic world. Sources of information about
Benjamin's life exist, although locating and assessing these sources is a
time-consuming process.
As a lawyer, Benjamin's life is assessed from a number of surviving
sources. He wrote two legal works: Digest of the Reported Decisions of the
Superior Court of the Late Territory of Orleans, and of the Supreme Court of
151
2 R. Meade, Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Statesman (1943/2001) xv.
3 The observation was made to Francis Lawley: P. Butler, Judah P. Benjamin (1907)
7±8.
4 The principal biographies are: Butler, id.; Meade, op. cit., n. 2; and E. Evans, Judah
P. Benjamin, The Jewish Confederate (1989). Lesser biographies include: R.
Osterweis, Judah P. Benjamin, Statesman of the Lost Cause (1933); L. Gruss,
`Judah Philip Benjamin' (1936) 19 Louisiana Historical Q. 964; M. Rywell, Judah
Benjamin: Unsung Rebel Prince (1948); S.I. Neiman, Judah Benjamin: Mystery
Man of the Confederacy (1963); A. Goodhart, `Judah Philip Benjamin, 1811±84' in
his Five Jewish Lawyers of the Common Law (1949); and S. Naresh, `Judah Philip
Benjamin at the English Bar'(1996) 70 Tulane Law Rev. 2487.
ß2015 The Author. Journal of Law and Society ß2015 Cardiff University Law School

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