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James Traub – Judah Benjamin

Senior Fellow, Center on International Cooperation, NYU

Noted author, journalist and lecturer


Selected Works:

Judah Benjamin: Counselor to the Confederacy, Yale University Press, JEWISH LIVES SERIES

City On A Hill: Testing the American Dream at City College

The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power,

John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit,

What Was Liberalism?: The Past, Present, and Promise of a Noble Idea

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Episode #1

Q: James Traub – Judah Benjamin – Intro


  • Author, Journalist, Lecturer

  • New York University

  • Had written a range of Books

  • Approached by Yale Press

  • Jewish Lives Series

  • Studied Eli Evans bio on Benjamin

Episode #2

Q: What were the early influences that shaped Judah Benjamin?


  • Born in the Caribbean

  • Parents were shopkeepers

  • Moved to North Carolina

  • And then to Charleston, South Carolina

  • Largest Jewish community in USA 1820

  • Southern Identity

  • Story of Assimilation

Episode #3

Q: Did Judah Benjamin receive a Jewish education?


  • Synagogue burned down – no records

  • Do not know if he had a Bar-Mitzvah

  • Father traditional but part of breakaway group

  • Mother kept store open on the Sabbath

  • Not a member of New Orleans synagogue

Episode #4

Q: What was Judah Benjamin’s Personality?


  • Winning Personality

  • Charming

  • Sweet to Kids

  • Elderly loved him

  • Told funny stories

  • Loved to play literary games

  • But extremely Hard Working

Episode #5

Q:  Did Judah Benjamin face anti-Semitism?


  • New Orleans featured many racial elements

  • As such there was  a great black/white divide

  • Benjamin fit into the “white category”

  • Higher he climbed, more he faced anti-Semitism

  • In the Senate & later as leader in Confederacy

Episode #6

Q: Why did Judah Benjamin choose politics?


  • Virtue of Public Service

  • Wealth a perquisite to political position

  • Model of Judah Touro

  • US Senate highest achievement for a Jew

Episode #7

Q: Judah Benjamin & Slavery?


  • Argued McCargo Case

  • Passionate anti-slavery defense

  • Cited by abolitionists

  • Evoked Merchant of Venice

  • But condemned by his knowledge

  • Bought sugar plantation

  • Largest Jewish slave owner

Episode #8

Q: Jefferson Davis and Judah Benjamin:


  • Jefferson Davis: temperamental, fearful

  • Judah Benjamin: calming influence

  • Fought in Senate, challenged to a duel

  • Found Benjamin to be indispensable

  • Benjamin could do the work of 10 men

  • Balance Wheel, “Court Jew”

Episode #9

Q: Was Judah Benjamin an effective Secretary of War?


  • Jefferson Davis wanted to be commanding general

  • Judah Benjamin served as a buffer

  • Hard to deal with hero generals of the South

  • South lacked guns, cannons, uniforms

  • Very suited as Secretary of State

  • Model, effective, diplomat

  • Attempted to get support of England & France

Episode #10

Q: How does Judah Benjamin escape capture by the North?


  • South on cusp of defeat

  • Confederate cabinet flees southward

  • David intent on fighting to the end

  • Judah Benjamin begins his escape from USA/North

  • Daring, adventurous, dangerous journey

  • Pulls it off & reaches England

Episode #11

Q: How does Judah Benjamin rebuild himself after the Civil War?


  • Fits it, assimilates into, English society

  • Begins a new legal career

  • Becomes highly successful

  • Authors, Benjamin on Contracts

  • Leading 1,000 page textbook

Episode #12

Q: What is Judah Benjamin’s Legacy?


  • Basically disappeared from history

  • Very few remembrances

  • Not admired in South

  • Non Jewish life

  • Story of highly successful assimilationist

  • Spokesperson for evil of slavery

Episode #13

Q: Why Should We Study Judah Benjamin?


  • Live in times of simple moral judgments

  • Need to distinguish between beliefs and character

  • Judah Benjamin was far reaching

  • But prey to ambition, assimilation

Full Interview - James Traub

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