The Levys Of Monticelo

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In 1838 Levy, now a commander, at last received an assignment, the command of the U.S.S. Vandalia . Reporting for duty, he found an inferior and frequently drunken crew and a ship in such bad condition that she needed five months’ overhauling. But it was Levy’s first command, and he was determined to make a success of it. Quixotic as always, he decided to have the guns painted bright blue, which was definitely not in the regulations; and he further outraged the Navy by putting into effect his own ideas of naval discipline, the most controversial of which was the prohibition of flogging. Because he substituted public humiliation for public flogging, he soon found himself in another court-martial, and he again was dismissed from the service. Now fifty years old, he was ready to admit defeat; but President Tyler rescinded the sentence and two years later promoted him to the rank of captain. He was passed over for duty in the Mexican War and spent those years trying to get a bill through Congress to outlaw flogging. A bill restricting this punishment passed in 1852; ten years later flogging was outlawed completely.

At the age of sixty-one, Uriah Levy, ever oblivious of what people might think, married a pretty and vivacious eighteen-year-old, Virginia Lopez, who was his sister’s daughter. Although both Talmudic law and the laws of most states permitted such a union, most of Uriah’s relatives were disapproving, as were his Charlottesville neighbors. Through the 1850's, the May-December couple spent the summers at Monticello. Years later, Virginia wrote her reminiscences, in which she told of her pleasure in being mistress of “the dear old house.” She wrote that her husband had “delighted in donning an old hat and coat and equipping himself with a pair of shears and going out to prune the shrubbery.” She went on: “We were overrun with sightseers at Monticello, and sometimes these people would come across him in this garb and say that they had come to see the sights and the serpentine (one called it ‘turpentine') walk and ask for Captain Levy.

 

“He would reply that the walk was there but that the Captain had gone to town, but he would be pleased to show them through. He took pleasure in regaling them with the supposed history of our family portraits.

“The painting of a dark beauty in court costume with a number of feathers in her hair [an aunt of Uriah’s] he told the visitors was the great Pocahontas.

“When I remonstrated with the Captain for deceiving these people, he said they had come a long distance to hear and see something and that he sent them home happy.”

A visitor in 1853 wrote of being shown about by Levy. He mentioned seeing a plaster model of one of the capitals that Jefferson had designed for the Capitol-with tobacco leaves where the Greeks used acanthus. He saw the David d’Angers bust and a model of Levy’s ship, the Vandalia . The French mirrors were in place in the drawing room, and, in the entrance hall, Jefferson’s specially designed two-faced clock was back in working order. It told—and still tells-not only the time but also the days of the week. Levy had restored the ceiling, with its eagle and eighteen stars, as well as the parquet floors, marred by mounted British troops during the War of 1812. And he had preserved the body of a two-wheeled gig in which Jefferson had traveled to the Continental Congress at Philadelphia in 1775. (All these things are still there.)

Throughout the 1850's, Levy tried but failed to obtain another command. But in the last few years before the Civil War, he enjoyed the command of a sloop of war, and even obtained the rare privilege of taking his wife along on a year of Mediterranean duty. In 1860 he was made a commodore.

When the Civil War broke out, the Confederate government confiscated Monticello and sold much of its contents at auction. Commodore Levy, now over seventy, offered his services to President Lincoln, who, perhaps with a quiet smile, appointed him to the Court-Martial Board.

The Commodore had always said that he considered himself “a temporary tenant” of Monticello: “After my death I will give Monticello to the people of the United States.” He died in March, 1862, and left it as he had promised—but with a few typically eccentric strings. It was to be an agricultural school “for the purpose of educating as practical farmers children of the warrant officers of the United States Navy whose fathers are dead.” If Congress should refuse this gift, then he left it to the people of the state of Virginia; and failing that, to the Portuguese Hebrew Congregations of New York, Philadelphia, and Richmond-as an agricultural school for their children whose fathers were dead “and also similar children of any other denomination of Hebrew or Christian” (for clearly there could be no sectarianism in the home of the great champion of religious freedom).