top of page
< Back

Book Notes: Judah P. Benjamin: The Jewish Confederate, Eli N. Evans

Malcolm Brown

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Book Notes Judah P. Benjamin: the Jewish Confederate, Eli N. Evans (Collier Maemillan, London 1988) 469 pp. ?19.95. Mr Evans will be known to many members of this Society as the author of The Provincials (Atheneum Press, New York 1973), an unusually perceptive semi-autobiographical commentary on Southern Jewry. Here he has chosen a much harder task. 'Never keep any letter or other document', Benjamin told the executor of his estate. 'You only bequeath a legacy of mischief. The first acknowledged Jew in the US Senate, the Attorney General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State in the Confederacy, and the pre-eminent late-Victorian authority on the law of sale, Benjamin has found so sympathetic a biographer that even he might have relented. As it is, years of research into alternative primary sources have been needed merely to constitute the factual detail missing hitherto. Where facts cannot be established, Mr Evans puts forward a variety of interpretations. The result is an achievement unlikely to be improved on for the foreseeable future. Mainstream Jewish public opinion in America has always looked askance at Benjamin. British by reason of his birth on the Caribbean island of Saint Croix, it was Britain that took him in after the debacle of 1865. In London his reputation, his astonishing ability in mastering legal paperwork, and an audaciousness in court that would pass into legal legend, made him a celebrity: Southern sympathies, after all, were never very far from the surface of polite society. This is a matter barely mentioned by students of Anglo-American Jewish history and one that prompts several questions. In the West Indies and Liverpool, where, during the Civil War, official neutrality was at best lukewarm, surely some members of the smaller communities would have been prepared to involve themselves in Southern enterprises. Captain Lionel Goldsmid's blockade-running exploits are among the most familiar of their kind, but in this context they are the only ones on record. The Jewish Chronicle of the day kept silent on such matters. Benisch refused to include more than the occasional notice of Benjamin's swift rise to fame and never swerved from pro-Unionist first principles. Historians are usually less partisan. One wonders about the Isaac brothers, whose old-fashioned methods as military contractors attracted the attention of the Confederate envoys at an unfortunate moment, leaving them with eventually enormous losses from the Erlanger Loan. Where, too, did the Rothschilds stand as regards the South? The last full-scale biography of August Belmont was completed before the archives at New Court could be consulted: much revision will be needed. It may be that there are fewer cans of worms than might have been expected, but until somebody applies himself as diligently as Mr Evans (in particular examining the American-Jewish periodicals of the time) we shall remain in ignorance about these aspects of a topic of evidently perennial interest. Malcolm Brown 279</page></plain_text>

bottom of page