The Jewish slaveholders

Beyond the antisemitic canards, Jews alternately participated, coopted and resisted slavery.

Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent Jewish slaveholder in American history (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Judah P. Benjamin, the most prominent Jewish slaveholder in American history
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In his recent Oscar acceptance speech, the film director Spike Lee referenced 1619, the year when African slaves were first brought to the British colonies which became the United States.
Alongside this infamous anniversary lay the rare point of agreement between black and white supremacists: that Jews dominated the slave trade.
In 1992, the Nation of Islam published The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, alleging Jewish domination of the trade. By the same token, David Duke, the Ku Klux Klansman, has advanced the same allegation in YouTube videos.
Beyond the antisemitic canards, Jews alternately participated, coopted and resisted slavery.
While a small number of Jews took part in the transit of slaves to America, British government records demonstrate that Jewish slaveholders owned less than two percent of the slaves imported into North American ports in the 1700s. After the United States declared the slave trade illegal in 1808, no Jews took part in the illegal smuggling of slaves that arose afterward.
Jews played an equally small role in the domestic sale of slaves. The 1859 City Directory of Charleston, South Carolina listed forty-four traders, auctioneers and brokers, four of whom were Jews. Only one of these men, Benjamin Cohen, was part of a list of the thirteen most lucrative traders in 1860.
In terms of ownership, none of the South’s largest cotton producers, rice planters or the large-scale sugar planters included Jews. In the cities of Charleston, Savannah, Richmond and New Orleans, Jews owned less than two percent of the slaves.
While rabbis in these cities either remained silent or supported slavery, other Jews crusaded against it. In 1787, the Revolutionary War veteran Solomon Bush became the first Jewish member of Philadelphia’s Quaker Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. In 1856, Baltimore Rabbi David Einhorn publicly denounced slavery as “this cancer of the union.” Maryland was a slave state that later remained in the Union during the Civil War. For his stand, Einhorn and his family received death threats and had to flee to Philadelphia.
Southern Jews like Joseph and Isaac Friedman in Alabama, Judah Touro in New Orleans, and Lazarus Straus in Georgia risked their lives to spirit African-Americans to safety.
On the other side of the divide, the most prominent American Jewish slaveholder was Judah P. Benjamin. An immigrant from St. Croix, his family moved to Charleston when he was three. He settled in New Orleans and became a successful attorney.
He worked to advance his political career by purchasing a plantation outside of the city in the 1840s. He named it Bellechasse and staffed it with 140 slaves.
The Louisiana State Legislature supported his rise to political power by electing him its US senator in 1852 (state legislatures chose US senators until 1913). He became the first openly Jewish senator in American history.
He served in the Senate until his resignation in 1860 due to the secession of the southern states and the beginning of the Civil War.
Benjamin joined the Confederate government and became a close colleague of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He served as the Confederacy’s Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State. In his final post, he led the unsuccessful effort to obtain diplomatic recognition for the South by Britain and France.
In a final initiative to obtain that diplomatic triumph and to provide manpower to an expiring Confederate Army, the slave owner proposed a scheme of emancipation. By this time, the Union Army had laid siege to the city of Petersburg, only 24 miles south of the Confederate capital. To the pragmatic Benjamin, his proposal seemed the only means of staving off defeat.
On February 9, 1865, Judah Benjamin delivered a speech in Richmond’s African Church proposing emancipation to black males in exchange for military service in the Confederate Army. Despite his audience’s initial enthusiastic reception, the negative reaction to his emancipation proclamation that followed gathered into a floodtide and the Confederate Congress rejected his proposal.
On February 24, 1865, Benjamin submitted his letter of resignation to Jefferson Davis but President Davis refused to accept it.
Benjamin continued to serve as Confederate Secretary of State until the fall of Richmond in April 1865. He fled with Davis from the Confederate capital and eventually reached Britain, where he embarked on a second career as a successful barrister, dying in Paris in 1884.
With the victory of the Union in the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, slave owning by all Americans, Jewish and Christian, finally came to an end.
Naim Peress is an attorney and thriller writer in the New York area.