Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Dark Prince of the Confederacy

Judah Benjamin - 1856
Little is known about the life of Judah Benjamin, the Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America.  The fact that he was considered one of the greatest legal minds of the 19th century is nearly forgotten by historians.  The man, who helped Jefferson Davis run the Confederate executive office and who Davis called "The Brains of the Confederacy," scarcely earns a mention in Davis' autobiography.  He is demonized in Stephen Vincent Benet's epic poem John Brown's Body as a "dark prince." [1] Benjamin's role in the Confederacy seems to have been minimized by Northern and Southern anti-Semitism.

One of the most interesting chapters in his life concerns his role as attorney in a case of "one of the most celebrated insurance cases in American history involving slavery."  Benjamin represented a group of insurance companies who were being sued by slaveholders to recover the cost of slaves that were lost during an uprising on the brig Creole.  During the voyage from Virginia to New Orleans, nineteen slaves seized control of the ship and forced the captain and crew to sail to Nassau.  The British authorities arrested the slaves who took over the ship but set the other slaves free because slavery was outlawed in the British territory.  The slave owners wanted the insurance companies to compensate them for the loss of "property," but the companies refused.   In response, the owners brought suit in New Orleans for $150,000.

Benjamin argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court that the British did not have to recognize the status of the slaves on the ship.

The position that slavery is a contravention of the law of nature [2] is established by the concurrent authority of writers on international law and of adjudications of courts of justice, from the era of Justinian to the present day ... View this matter as we may it at last resolves itself into the simple question - does the law of nations make it the duty of Great Britain to refuse a refuge in her domains for fugitives from this country, whether white or black, free or slave?  It would require great hardihood to maintain the affirmative as to whites but the color of the fugitive can make no possible difference.  It will scarcely be pretended that the presumption of our municipal law, that blacks are slaves, is to be made a rule of law of nations. [3]

Benjamin began his line of reasoning using the classic Abolitionist rationale of the laws of nature.  He urged the court to make a decision regarding race and continued to insist that the law of nations should determine the case.

It is obvious that the only criterion by which they can be governed is that which is insisted on by the American government, viz.: if the blacks reach there uncontrolled by any master and apparently released from any restraint on the part of the whites, to consider them as free.  These are the principles on which by the law of nations Great Britain has the right to regulate her principles.

However, Benjamin's boldest contention was that the risk of mutiny was inherent in the slaveholders' decision to pack the slaves into the ship and the crew's cruelty toward the slaves created the conditions that caused the mutiny.  The treatment by the slaveholders and their agents produced the loss.  In a very bold statement, he asked:
What is a slave?   He is a human being. He has feelings and passion and intellect.  His heart, like the heart of the white man, swells with love, burns with jealousy, aches with sorrow, pines under restraint and discomfort, boils with revenge and ever cherishes the desire for liberty.  His passions and feelings in some respects may not be as fervid and as delicate as those of the whites, nor his intellect as acute; but passions  and feelings he has, and in some respects, they are more violent and consequently more dangerous, from the very circumstances that his mind is comparatively weak, and unenlighted.  Considering the character of the slave, and the peculiar passions which, generated by nature, are strengthened and stimulated by his condition, he is prone to revolt in the near future of things, and ever ready to conquer his liberty where a probable chance presents itself.

Benjamin concluded by asking, "Will this court be, disposed to recognize one standard of humanity for the white man and another for the Negro?"  The Louisiana Supreme Court said no and ruled for clients against the slaveowners.
Benjamin's arguments have a familiar ring to them.  William Shakespeare offered a similar argument in The Merchant of Venice, when Shylock asked:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

Perhaps the well-read Benjamin drew his inspiration from that text.
Judah Benjamin 1860-65
Benjamin's arguments were quickly adopted by abolitionists.  However, in spite of Benjamin's pronouncements, he was not in favor of emancipation.  He was merely presenting the best arguments to win the case.  His comments also indicate the widely held belief in both the South and the North that slaves were not as intelligent ("intellect as acute" and "mind is comparatively weak") as whites.   In making this statement as justification for violence Benjamin rather astutely noted that this lack of intelligence could be attributed to the slaves being "unenlighted" or uneducated. [4]

[1] "The mind behind the silk-ribbed fan/Was a dark prince, clothed in an Eastern stuff/Whole brown hands cupped about a crystal egg/That filmed with colored cloud. The yes stared, searching" From John Brown's Body by Stephen Vincent Benet (1927) as quoted in Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate.
[2] Natural law, or the law of nature is a system of law that is purportedly determined by nature, and thus universal. Classically, natural law refers to the use of reason to analyze human nature—both social and personal—and deduce binding rules of moral behavior from it.
[3] International law describing the rights and obligations between nations.
[4] Evans, Eli N., Judah P. Benjamin - The Jewish Confederate,  The Free Press, New York, c 1988, 37-39.

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