Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 40/Hon. Judah P. Benjamin (Calisch)
HON. JUDAH P. BENJAMIN.
By RABBI CALISCH.
An oil portrait of Mr. Benjamin was presented by members of the Jefferson Club to Lee Camp No. 1, C. V., Richmond, Va., at the meeting of Lee Camp, on November 20th, 1902. The address of presentation was made by Rabbi E. N. Calisch, as follows:
Rabbi Calisch began by saying that it is quite impossible to estimate the influence that any one individual exercises upon his community or upon the common human progress. It is not always necessarily true that those who occupy the most conspicuous positions are the most effective factors in human history or progress. Often the most decisive conflict is fought unheralded and in silence. Among those who fought in this silent and unheralded battle of brains, and not of brawn, was one who gave to the South in her hour of sorest need the power of a mighty intellect, the loyalty of a loving heart, the generous meed of a devoted and self-sacrificing service, one who because of the worth and efficiency of this service earned the sobriquet of the "Brains of the Confederacy," the one whose portrait he had the honor to present, Judah Philip Benjamin.
The rabbi then gave a sketch of the life of Mr. Benjamin, touching upon his birth, his early years, his legal triumphs, his success in the United States Senate, to which he was elected from Louisiana in 1852, and was the first Jew to occupy a seat in the chamber, his work in the Cabinet of the Confederacy, his flight to England, his triumphs again at the English bar, his honor and his death in Paris May, 1884.
This was the life of Judah P. Benjamin. This sketch of it, cursory and incomplete as it is, tells plainly what the man was. His struggles, his achievements, his conduct during prosperity and adversity, give eloquent testimony to his magnificent mentality, his tireless energy, his indomitable courage, his unvarying loyalty to the South. His mental faculties were of the massive and majestic order, possessing solidity, strength and exhaustless power. But because titanic his intellect was by no means slow or heavy. He was quick and keen in debate, skillful and incisive in repartee, active and accurate in those legal and forensic tourneys in which his professional and civic duties called him to particpate. Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, who was his constant opponent, paid high tirbute to his ability, and declared him the ablest and most eloquent man in the Senate. And those were days when the Senate of the United States was an august body, and ability and eloquence characteristic of its deliberations.
His mind was constituted to deal with large things. He loved to plead causes, and though he could, when necessity demanded, play with consummate skill upon logical premises and twist them to suit his case, yet he could not "reduce his mind to a level with those speciosities" that are often resorted to to twist a verdict from a jury. His capacity for work was apparently inexhaustible. He would often labor from 8 A. M. till 2 and 3 of the following morning. President Davis recognized this capacity, and gave him much work that did not belong to his department. It was said that he was the only officer in the Cabinet who could fill any other man's place.
Mr. Benjamin's success and his eloquence were the fruit of his tremendous mental power more than of any special physical grace or gift. In figure he was short and inclined to be stout. In feature, while not typically, he was distinguishably Jewish. His eyes, hair and beard were dark, the face round and the lips full. His voice was silvery and resonant when he poured forth the flow of logic, rhetoric superb diction, scholarly research and invincible argument that characterized his addresses. We can easily understand how he gained his triumphs in the forum and at the bar. It is said that this richness and perfection of style he evinced in the most unimportant documents. He did not write a note even for a servant to fetch an umbrella that was not a model of diction and rhetoric. While not given to levity or jocular he was a most genial and agreeable companion. Mr. Harrison (in Century Magazine, November, 1883) says that on that memorable retreat of President Davis and his Cabinet and officers, "as long as he (Benjamin) remained with us, his cheery, good humor and his readiness to adapt himself to the requirement of all emergencies made him a most agreeable comrade."
This cheery courage and readiness to adapt himself to the requirements of all emergencies stood him in good stead in the bitter hours that followed that retreat. When he came to London he was a destitute fugitive, a man of the comparatively advanced age of fifty-five years, had much to learn and much to unlearn, for American law while founded on English, yet diverges from it in many ways and differs in many technicalities of practice. But he set to work with that characteristic, tireless energy, and not only did he overcome these disadvantages, but he coped with the elite of the English bar, and repeated in England the legal triumphs he had won in America. He won the enviable position of Queen's Counsellor. He published not long after his admission to the English bar a work on the sale of property known as "Benjamin on Sales," which is today yet one of the standard authorities in law, as much so as Blackstone's Commentaries.
On his service to the Confederacy but few words need be said. No history of that lost, lamented, yet much loved cause can fail to recognize his work. He won by that work recognition, even from opponents, as the "Brain of the Confederacy." He was to the government at Richmond what Lee was to the army in the field. He gave to it all he had, the full powers of his magnificent intellect, the great force of his untiring energy, his fortune and his all. He carried over sea with him his love of the Southland, to whose memory he was loyal to his last breath and to whose sufferers he never failed to give sucocr when again his labors had brought him to bask in the sunshine of prosperity.
The speaker then referred to Mr. Benjamin's labors in behalf of the South while in the Senate, of his eloquent and convincing defense, first of Louisiana in particular, and of the South in general. He referred also to Mr. Benjamin's retirement from the Senate, depicting that memorable and impressive scene, and quoting from the latter's farewell speech. He then continued:
With these words Judah P. Benjamin passed out of the chamber of the American Senate to cast his fortunes with the Southland, to have his heart beat high with hers in the earlier days of her victories, to suffer and sorrow with her when the never-to-be-forgotten days of her distress and desolation drew on, and finally falling with her into the ruin of her catastrophe, to end his days in a foreign land, heaped with new honors, it is true, but loyal unto her with his very last breath.
It is the portrait of this distinguished gentleman, advocate, scholar and statesman that I have the honor to present to you, sir, for Lee Camp of Confederate Veterans. It is with peculiar pride and pleasure that I do so. I stand here in the name of the Jewish community of this city, some of whose members have given the means whereby this presentation is made possible. We do this for the reason that we feel we are honoring ourselves in thus honoring a coreligionist. Judah P. Benjamin was born of Jewish parents and reared as a Jewish child. I have not been able to discover if he was an observing Jew or not. But this I know, had he been a traitor we would have had to bear the ignominy of his wrong doing — but as he was a hero, a statesman, a gentleman and a patriot, we claim the privilege of sharing in the reflection of his glory.The speaker then paid a glowing tribute to the Jewish Confederate soldier, saying that he stood for two things, his love for the Southland and the vindication of his people. Consciously or not Judah P. Benjamin stood for these two things too, and most nobly helped to achieve them. The cause for which he consciously fought was destined by the God of battles not to be won. But the inspiration of his own life, its energy and courage, its remarkable triumphs, even in defeat, its high souled honor and its noble fortitude will remain an inspiration as long as men will have minds to remember and hearts to understand.