Jon Ossoff is the first Jew to be elected to the Senate from the Deep South since before the Reconstruction. But who were these Civil War era Jews who came before him? They’re so far in the past, I was surprised to hear there had ever been a Jewish senator from the South; I had never heard of any of them.
There may be good reason for that — these men were not the most morally upright standard bearers of Judaism. All three were adamant supporters of slavery and fought in the Confederate Army; not great inspirations for Ossoff’s campaign.
Today, Ossoff’s runoff election win alongside the election of Reverend Raphael Warnock has been hailed as a symbol of the progress made in the South, and a sign of hope for the future.
To be clear, there have been many Jewish Senators from the rest of the country, fairly equally distributed throughout history. But these three Southern Jewish senators were also the first three Jewish senators at all, making them doubly historic — however little we want to lay claim to them.
David Levy Yulee (1812-1886)
Served as senator from Florida 1845-51 and 1855-61
Yulee, the first Jewish senator, was known as the “Florida Fire-Eater” during his tenure in the Senate. (“Fire-Eater” was a term for pro-slavery Democrats who supported secession before the Civil War.)
Born David Levy, Yulee was of Sephardi descent and born on the island of St. Thomas. His father, Moses Elias Levy, was a successful lumber trader who came from Morocco. The family emigrated in the early 1820s to what is now Jacksonville, Florida, where Moses Levy hoped to establish a “New Jerusalem,” a town for Jewish settlers in the fledgling country (it did not take off, despite Florida’s sizable Jewish population today).
David Levy grew up to join a Florida militia, and fought in the Second Seminole War, starting his public career off on a bad note by pushing many Native Americans off their land and onto a reservation. After the war, he founded an enormous sugar plantation, run entirely by slave labor.
When Florida became a state, he joined the Senate, where he served from 1845-49, during which time he married the daughter of the former Kentucky governor Charles Wickliffe and took the last name Yulee, the name of a Moroccan ancestor. He converted to Episcopalianism and with his wife raised their children as Christians.
Yulee sat in the Senate again from 1855-1861, at which point he resigned to better support the Confederacy. He was imprisoned for treason after the Civil War, specifically for aiding the 1865 escape of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States during the secession attempt; Yulee was pardoned after a brief nine month imprisonment in Fort Pulasky.
Florida, apparently unbothered by his pro-slavery legacy, has a town and a county named after Yulee and, as recently as 2000, designated him a “Great Floridian” installing plaques in his honor. His sugar plantation is a historic site.
Judah P. Benjamin (1811-1884)
Served as senator from Louisiana 1853-1861
Benjamin had a moment of renewed fame this summer, when a monument to him in Charlotte, N.C. was removed during the summer’s racial justice protests. The monument, which was plain and unassuming — more plaque than statue — had escaped notice for years, but artists painting a Black Lives Matter mural nearby rediscovered it and advocated for its removal. The monument, which was built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was paid for by two local synagogues and became a trying symbol for Jews in the BLM movement.
Benjamin was born to British Jews of Sephardi descent in 1811, in what are now the Virgin Islands. His father was a cousin and business partner of first Jewish senator Yulee’s father, but less financially successful. In Charleston, where they ultimately settled, Benjamin’s father helped to found the first Reform congregation in the United States, but his son was expelled from the community for not keeping Shabbat.
At the impressive age of 14, Benjamin left to attend Yale, but did not finish his degree; he left at 16 and moved to New Orleans where he worked for a law firm and eventually began to practice law himself by the time he was 21.
His specialty, in commercial law, was the slave trade; he defended slave sellers and advocated for insurance to cover the losses of slave owners whose slaves had revolted. His defenses hinged on an understanding of slaves as property, and he was known for speaking eloquently and at length on the issue.
Benjamin’s own first slaves came with his marriage into a wealthy Catholic French-Creole family; his wife Natalie’s dowry included two enslaved women. Unlike Yulee, he did not convert, but was also never observant; his wife gave him Catholic last rites on his deathbed.
In 1853, he was sworn into the Senate representing the Whig Party in Louisiana. But in 1860, as the country faced a crisis over secession, he resigned, drawing a huge crowd with his reputation as the South’s most eloquent speaker.
Benjamin served in the Confederate government as the Attorney General and Secretary of State. At the end of the war, he fled the States for London, where, escaping all consequences for his role in the Civil War, he again became a respected lawyer; one text he published at the time, “Benjamin on Sales,” is still read in law courses in the UK.
Though he was known as the only Jewish senator from the south to publicly to identify as Jewish, he was most famous for his speeches in support of slavery. And today, Jewish scholars are hesitant to proudly claim his legacy.
Benjamin F. Jonas (1834-1911)
Served as senator from Louisiana 1879-1885
Jonas, Ossoff’s most recent predecessor from the South, followed in Benjamin’s footsteps as a Louisiana senator.
He was raised in Illinois, where, according to his obituary, his father was “a bosom friend and staunch supporter” of Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless, when the Civil War began, Jonas, who had moved to Louisiana, joined the Confederate Army in 1862; he eventually rose to the rank of major.
After the war, he worked his way up through various state legislature positions in New Orleans, and won a Senate seat in 1879, after the Civil War, where he served one term but failed to win a second.
Jonas married a Christian woman and ceased practicing Judaism openly, though it is unclear if he formally converted. Nevertheless, one obituary claimed his legacy as one in which “all Jewish residents of the West and South feel a just pride.”
While he clearly supported the South in the Civil War, he never owned a plantation and it is unclear whether he owned slaves, making him arguably the best of the three — but it’s a low bar.
Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @miraefox.
Meet Jon Ossoff’s Jewish predecessors from the South