Judah Philip Benjamin - Encyclopedia

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JUDAH PHILIP BENJAMIN (1811-1884), Anglo-American lawyer, of Jewish descent, was born a British subject at St Thomas in the West Indies on the 11th of August 1811, and was successively an American lawyer, a leading Confederate politician and a distinguished English barrister. He eventually died in Paris a domiciled Frenchman. After 1818 his parents lived in Charleston, South Carolina, and he went to Yale in 1825 for his education, but left without taking a degree, and entered an attorney's office in New Orleans. He was admitted to the New Orleans bar in 1832. He compiled with his friend John Slidell a valuable digest of decisions of the superior courts of New Orleans and Louisiana; and as a partner in the firm of Slidell, Benjamin & Conrad, he enjoyed a good practice. In 1848 he was admitted a councillor of the supreme court, and in 1852 he was elected a senator for Louisiana, and thereafter he took an active part in politics, declining to accept a judgeship of the supreme court. In 1861 he withdrew from the Senate, left Washington and actively espoused the Confederate cause. He joined Jefferson Davis's provisional government as attorney-general, becoming afterwards his secretary for war (1861-1862), and chief secretary of state (1862-1865). Although at times subject to fierce criticism with regard to matters of administration and finance, he was recognized as one of the ablest men on the Confederate side, and he remained with Jefferson Davis to the last, sharing his flight after the surrender at Appomattox, and only leaving him shortly before his capture, because he found himself unable to go farther on horseback. He escaped from the coast of Florida in an open boat, and after many vicissitudes reached England, an exile. In 1866 his remaining property was lost in the banking failure of Overend & Gurney.

In London Benjamin was able to earn a little money by journalism, and on the 13th of January 1866 he entered Lincoln's Inn. He received a hospitable welcome from the legal profession. The influence of English judges who knew his abilities and his circumstances enabled him to be called to the bar on the 6th of June 1866, dispensing with the usual three years as a student, and he acquired his first knowledge of the practice and methods of English courts as the pupil of Mr C. E. (afterwards Baron) Pollock. Pollock fully recognized his abilities and they became and remained firm friends. Benjamin was naturally an apt and useful pupil; for instance, an opinion of Mr Pollock, which for long guided the London police in the exercise of their right to search prisoners, is mentioned by him as having been really composed by Benjamin while he was still his pupil. Benjamin joined the northern circuit, and a large proportion of his early practice came from solicitors at Liverpool who had correspondents in New Orleans. His business gradually increased, and having received a patent of precedence, he was on the 2nd of November 1872 called within the bar as a queen's counsel. In addition to his knowledge of law and of commercial matters he had considerable eloquence, and a power of marshalling facts and arguments that rendered him extremely effective, particularly before judges. He was less successful in addressing juries, and towards the close of his career did not take Nisi Arius work, but in the court of appeal and House of Lords and before the judicial committee of the privy council he enjoyed a very large practice, making for some time fully Li 5,000 a year. The question of raising him to the bench was seriously considered by Lord Cairns, who, however, seems to have thought that the ungrudging hospitality and goodwill with which Benjamin had been received by the English legal profession had gone far enough. Towards the close of his career he was in ill health, and he suffered from the results of a fall from a tramcar. He retired in 1882 to a house in Paris which he had built and where he had been in the habit of passing his vacations with his wife, who was a Frenchwoman. He never returned to practice, but came back to London to be entertained by the bench and bar of England at a banquet in the Inner Temple Hall on the 30th of June 1883. He died at Paris on the 6th of May 1884.

Benjamin was thick-set and stout, with an expression of great shrewdness. An early portrait of him is to be found in Jefferson Davis's Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. His political history may be traced in that work, and in John W. Draper's American Civil War and von Hoist's Constitutional History of the United States. Many allusions to his English career will be found in works describing English lawyers of his period, and there are some interesting reminiscences of him by Baron Pollock in the Fortnightly Review for March 1898. His Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property with References to the American Decisions and to the French Code and Civil Law - a bulky volume known to practitioners as Benjamin on Sales - is the principal text-book on its subject, and a fitting monument of the author's career at the English bar, of his industry and learning. Many of his American speeches have been published.

See Judah P. Benjamin, by Pierce Butler (Philadelphia, 1907, with a good bibliography).

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