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Hon. Benjamin Franklin Jonas
     HON. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN JONAS, an eminent citizen of Louisiana, was born at Williamstown, Grant county, Ky., July 19, 1834. His father removed to Adams county, Ill., while the subject of our sketch was still young, and there, in the large and flourishing city of Quincy, lying along the banks of the Mississippi river, the boy grew up, received his early education, and acquired those habits of mental discipline and culture and of self-reliance which have largely aided him to attain his present exalted station in life. Mr. Jonas was fortunate in his parentage. His father possessed moral and intellectual qualities of a high order. A lawyer by profession, he easily rose to the front rank among the legal giants who led the bar of Illinois in those early days when merit alone constituted the standard of success. He was grand master of the Free Masons in both of the states in which he resided - Kentucky and Illinois - and a member of the legislature of both states. At the completion of his academic education in 1853, Mr. Jonas came to New Orleans and entered the law school of the University of Louisiana, where he graduated in 1855, being the valedictorian of his class. Among those who received their diplomas at the same time and who have since attained distinction in the annals of law and politics, may be mentioned: Senator R.L. Gibson, Hon. Charles E. Fenner, Col. Thomas O. Benton and Percy Roberts.
     Following the family traditions, Mr. Jonas' first political alliances were with the whig party. When this ancient organization was superseded by younger and more energetic aspirants for popular favor, Mr. Jonas retired from the political arena. The prospective tenets of the native American party were repugnant to him, and the current of events had not yet brought him to the hospitable portals of the national democracy. In 1860, however, when the clouds long gathering on the horizon were descending and preparing to burst upon the land in desolating war, the remnant of the whig party made a final stand for the preservation of the Union. Mr. Jonas promptly responded to the call, and threw himself into the cause of Bell and Everett with enthusiasm and intrepidity. He canvassed many portions of the state, and pleaded for the Union and the constitution with a fervor, earnestness and eloquence which permanently established his fame as an orator and political leader. Shortly after the close of the presidential campaign in 1860 he was tendered and accepted the nomination on the co-operation ticket as a delegate from the parish of New Orleans to the state convention called to consider the question of secession. His colleagues on the ticket were Randell Hunt, Pierre Soule, Cyprien Dufour and Thomas J. Durant, all by many years his senior. The secession movement was then in the full rush of its onset, and Mr. Jonas with the rest of the above-named gentlemen were defeated at the polls by a small majority. Events now moved rapidly. Louisiana withdrew from the Union. The confederacy was organized. The country passed from peaceful discussions of the great questions which had engaged the attention from the adoption of the constitution, and plunged into war. Mr. Jonas' attitude at this period was that of a conservative patriot. If the South could be permitted to remain in the Union on the basis of honor and justice to her rights, he desired her to stay in the house of her fathers. The glory of the republic was the common heritage of all the people of all the states, to which the South had contributed its full measure of intellect, courage and patriotism, and which should not be hastily sacrificed in a moment of passion. If the North, however, was bent upon coercion, then let the state governments move as a harmonious whole, and withdraw from the Union in a body, thus investing the solemn act with added gravity and dignity. But the spark which had been ignited by the shipment of United States troops to reinforce the garrison at Fort Sumter, soon burst into a flame, and in a few short months the fires were blazing at all points. Mr. Jonas' decision was made. Louisiana was his home and her people were his people. The discussion of profound constitutional problems had been wrested from the domain of the hustings, the forum and the bench, and relegated to the stern arbitrament of the sword. He donned the gray, and entered the confederate army as a private in Fenner's Louisiana battery. From the hour of his departure for the field until the final surrender of 1865 he was steadfast at his post, participating in all the campaigns in which his company was engaged, sharing the fatigues, dangers and privations of his comrades with the same patience, courage and devotion which has distinguished him at every period of his career. For a short time he served by detail as acting adjutant of the artillery attached to Hood's corps in the Army of Tennessee. He is one of the few instances in the post-bellum history of the country in which a private soldier of either the union or confederate army has attained the highest political honors. The adventitious aids of epaulettes and a title were not necessary to Jonas in the contest for popular favor. To write the life of Jonas since the war is to write the history of Louisiana for that period.
     From the organization of the democratic party in 1865 down to the present hour his name is ineffaceably inscribed upon every page of the history of the commonwealth. He was a leader in the beginning, and he is a leader now. At the first election after the cessation of hostilities he was sent to the house of representatives of the state legislature from the Tenth ward of the city of New Orleans, a ward which has never failed him in his political aspirations, and which he has always esteemed it a pride and a privilege to represent. He served in the legislature until the period of reconstruction brought an arbitrary end to the existence of that body. In 1868 he was sent as a delegate at large to the national democratic convention held in the city of New York, and as chairman of the Louisiana delegation cast the vote of the state in that body for Winfield Scott Hancock. In the state convention which met in New Orleans in 1872, the democratic ticket selected for governor and lieutenant-governor bore the names of John McEnery and B.F. Jonas. These gentlemen at once entered upon a canvass of the state, and such was the enthusiasm evoked by their eloquent and brilliant oratory that the campaign grew into a triumphal progress and presaged a glorious victory at the polls. But the year 1872 is memorable in the annals of the country and state as the "Greeley year," when the spirit of concession to its former adversaries led the democratic party to put away in many instances its own trusted chieftains, and to enlist under banners of "strange device." A combination of the reformers, the liberals and the old line democrats resulted in the formation of a state ticket composed of the representatives of each of these allies. The committee charged with the execution of the terms of the treaty took down the name of B.F. Jonas for lieutenant-governor, and substituted that of Davidson B. Penn. After his retirement from the state ticket in 1872 Mr. Jonas was elected to the senate from the Fourth district of the city of New Orleans. He refused to take his seat in the Kellogg legislature where his name was regularly called from the roll at every session of that body for four years, but adhered firmly to the McEnery government during all its trials and vicissitudes. In 1874 he was elected city attorney of New Orleans and re-elected in 1876, serving two terms and adding largely to his reputation as a safe counsellor, sound lawyer and successful advocate. Those were troublous times for the municipality, but under the skillful pilotage of her attorney the city passed safely over rocks and reefs of litigation which threatened disaster to many of her corporate and vested interests. Mr. Jonas was once more elected to the legislature from the Tenth ward (in the year 1876) this time to the lower house, in which he served a full term as chairman of the judiciary committee, and as the recognized leader of his party on the floor. During the contest for United States senator which occurred in January, 1877, he was a candidate for nomination before the democratic caucus, but was defeated by Judge Spofford by a majority of two or three votes. At the ensuing election for United States senator two years later the struggle was between James B. Eustis, the incumbent, Duncan F. Kenner and B.F. Jonas, and after protracted balloting Mr. Jonas became the choice of his party, and took his seat at Washington on March 18, 1879. His record in the United States senate is still too fresh in the minds of the public to require extended notice here. He served on various important committees, on railroads, on the improvement of the Mississippi river (of which he was chairman during the period of democratic ascendancy in that body), on private land claims, on privileges and elections, and on the committee to investigate the introduction and spread of epidemic diseases. He soon became noted for his assiduity and strict attention to the business of the senate and for his unfailing punctuality in the performance of every detail of duty. If there was a senator during the six years of Mr. Jonas' term who was more regular in attendance upon its daily and nightly sessions, who watched more closely the progress of legislation, who was more familiar with the points presented pro and con in debate, who was more thoroughly informed of the source and direction of the myriad undercurrents that swell the stream of governmental action, or one whose name appears more constantly in the record of votes on the passage of laws, the fact is not known to the members or officers of that body. All matters affecting the interests of Louisiana, the improvement of the Mississippi river, and the sugar question especially, found in Senator Jonas a clear-sighted, devoted, powerful advocate. He was scrupulously exact and punctilious in his attention to the affairs of his constituents. It was a point of etiquette with him to permit no letter to remain three days unanswered, no matter how poor in purse might be the writer, how lowly his station in life, or how unblessed with political influence. Jealous of the fair fame of his state, the slightest reflection upon Louisiana brought him to his feet, and the chamber rang with his indignant, resentful, fiery oratory. Senator Coke, of Texas, once said in his terse, homely way: "Jonas don't seem to think it necessary to get on his legs every day, but when he talks we hearken." While recognized as an unwavering partisan, Senator Jonas gained the esteem and friendship of many in the senate who were not of his political household, and his retirement from that body on March 4, 1885, was a source of profound regret to every member. During the canvass which preceded the spring elections of 1884 Senator Jonas had remained closely to his post. He was engaged as a member of the sub-committee of the committee on privileges and elections, in the investigation of the political disturbances in Copiah county, Miss., and from his point of view it was not permissible to abandon his duties in Washington in order to devote his energies to securing a re-election. While it can not be denied that in this, as in all other emergencies of his life, Senator Jonas displayed an exalted conception of his obligations as a public servant, the sequel showed conclusively that he had deliberately subordinated his personal ambition to his sense of official duty. In the democratic caucus held at Baton Rouge in May, 1884, Mr. Jonas lost the election by one vote. Comment is unnecessary. Soon after the inauguration of President Cleveland Mr. Jonas received the appointment of collector of customs for the port of New Orleans. It is the highest office within the gift of the executive in the state of Louisiana, and the selection of Mr. Jonas was intended as a recognition of his high character as a man and his invaluable services in the cause of democracy. No sketch of Mr. Jonas is complete without a reference to his connection with national politics. He has been a member of the democratic national committee from the state of Louisiana since the year 1876, but it was in the year 1884 that he developed to their full maturity his great powers as a tactician and strategist upon an arena which is limited in area only by the boundary lines of the whole country. He was a member of the sub-committee of seven, in whose hands was confided the absolute management of the Cleveland campaign, and such was his skill, readiness of resource, nerve and dauntless courage, that he won the unreserved admiration and praises of Barnum, Gorman, Smalley, Smith, Weed, Manning, Scott of Erie, and a host of experienced party chieftains. It is the deliberate judgment of one who is an acknowledged pastmaster in the art and science of planning and conducting successful campaigns that Mr. Jonas has few equals and no superior in either political organization, in the highest qualities that constitute a party manager upon the broad field of national politics. As an orator Mr. Jonas is earnest, clear, argumentative. Disdaining the arts of the rhetorician, his thoughts are clothed in the simplest English, and presented with an energy of manner and sincerity of conviction that carries his audience with him. When badgering an opponent, he frequently enlivens his discourse with a vein of sportive irony and satire born of native humor, and when his indignation is aroused by an act of unusual turpitude on the part of his adversary, he rises to a high pitch of vehement invective and merciless sarcasm. Few men in Louisiana have achieved such an unbroken record of triumph on the hustings. Mr. Jonas was married, in 1859, to Miss Josephine Block, of New Orleans, and to this union were born two sons, now grown to manhood: Frank B. and Edwin A. Jonas. Since retiring from the collectorship Mr. Jonas has resumed the practice of his profession, in New Orleans, as a member of the well-known firm of Farrar, Jonas & Kruttschnitt, and while attending to his professional duties has found time to take an active part in the canvass for the democratic candidates at the recent elections. Socially, he is a member of the Boston and Varieties clubs, of New Orleans, and the Manhattan and Reform clubs, of New York.

[Source: Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Louisiana; Chicago; The Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1892; transcribed by Kim Mohler]




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