The Levys Of Monticelo

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Whatever the circumstances, Charlottesville records show that on May 20, 1836, for the sum of $2,500, the house, outbuildings, and 218 acres of the plantation of Monticello became the property of Uriah Phillips Levy, Lieutenant, U.S.N.

Who was the new master of Monticello? People in the neighborhood were very curious. A bachelor, forty-four years old. (What did he want with this big place?) A lieutenant in the United States Navy. (Why did he wish to live so far from the sea?) A Yankee. And a Jew. (Like provincials the world over, Charlottesville people were suspicious of strangers and of persons whose backgrounds differed from their own.) No one hastened forward to welcome the new owner, or to be hospitable to his mother, Mrs. Rachel Levy, whom he brought with him to supervise the housekeeping.

If a remarkable, somewhat eccentric house deserved a master of the same description, Monticello had found him in Uriah Levy, who was one of the few naval officers to have risen from the ranks, and was at that time the only Jewish officer in the United States Navy. He had at that time survived five courts-martial and was to end his career as a commodore.

Born in Philadelphia in 1792, Uriah Phillips Levy was the descendant of shopkeepers who had immigrated from Germany before the Revolution. From early childhood he was down at the docks watching the great ships come and go; and at the tender age of ten he ran away to sea, first informing the captain who signed him on as cabin boy that he would have to be back in two years, in time to prepare for his bar mitzvah.

In later life, Levy described himself as “an American, a sailor and a Jew.” He was all these things with deep dedication. Most citizens of the early Republic were intensely patriotic, but Uriah felt an added emotion: a heartfelt devotion to that part of the Constitution that ordains freedom of religion, and to the man who had championed that cause, Thomas Jefferson.

Although the boy’s family and friends urged him to give up the sea and take to shopkeeping, he soon shipped out again. He became a sailing master in the merchant marine, and then joined the Navy in that capacity during the War of 1812, serving on a raider in the Irish Sea. Captured, he spent fourteen months in the notorious British prison Dartmoor.

In spite of the considerable prejudice he had encountered, Levy stayed in the Navy. “What will be the future of our Navy if others such as I refuse to serve because of the prejudices of a few?” he asked. “There will be other Hebrews, in times to come, of whom America will have need. By serving myself, I will help give them a chance to serve.”

In 1817 Levy received a commission as lieutenant. But his joy was soon destroyed by three courts-martial, in quick succession, all arising out of petty arguments and misunderstandings, compounded by antisemitism and malice. Levy, it must be added, had a short-fused temper that did not help matters. The third court-martial, in 1819, ended in his dismissal from the Navy; but two years later he was reinstated by order of President James Monroe.

 

By 1836, the year he bought Monticello, Levy had weathered five courts martial, but had been without an assignment for several years. This was not necessarily a reflection on him, for in those days there were always more officers than assignments. During these years he had invested shrewdly in New York real estate and had become a wealthy man. He had also traveled abroad. While in France, aware that there was no statue in Washington of his hero, Thomas Jefferson, he had commissioned David d’Angers to make a heroic bronze, which he would then present to the nation. When the statue arrived in America the following year, Levy went himself to the docks at Norfolk to escort it to Washington. Congress seems to have been bewildered by such largesse. Some members argued that it was a mistake to accept a present from a lieutenant “of no particular distinction,” and that Congress should commission its own statues, but in the end the House voted to accept, and the bronze now stands in the Rotunda of the Capitol: Levy presented a copy of it to New York City which may be seen today at City Hall; and to Monticello he later brought a bust, copied from the statue.

As soon as he had bought Monticello, Levy hired a local man, Joel Wheeler, to act as overseer and caretaker, and began to make badly needed repairs, renovations, and replantings. Although only ten years had passed since Jefferson himself had presided over his elegant and gracious home, the deterioration was woeful. And Levy, who was now very active in the New York business world, could spare only summer vacations to go to Virginia. Jefferson’s descendants had now placed a granite monument on the illustrious grave, but it was continually chipped away by souvenir hunters, and Levy ordered the plaque taken off and hidden away for safekeeping. After a few years, the imposing granite shaft was reduced to a stump.