The Levys Of Monticelo


Occasions like these served to call the public’s attention to the fact that a national hero’s home was in private hands. There began to be editorials, speeches, and letters to editors, calling for something to be done about it. In 1912 the wife of a congressman, Mrs. Martin W. Littleton, came before a congressional committee and made an emotional plea. “Is [Levy] insensible to all emotions of patriotism and unselfishness?” she demanded. “Does he want a whole Nation crawling at his feet forever for permission to worship at this shrine of our independence?” There was talk of getting a bill through Congress that would permit the confiscation of Monticello by right of eminent domain—although some thoughtful citizens pointed out that Jefferson himself would have been the first to find this repugnant.


When a Democratic President was elected in 1912, the clamor increased. In 1914 William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State, wrote Congressman Levy personally about the matter, urging him to “commemorate the great Democratic Administration of President Wilson, which is being conducted on Jeffersonian principles, and the fact the President is, by birth, a Virginian makes the present moment still more pportune.”

To this, the hounded Levy responded: “I am convinced that I must put aside my feelings and yield to the national demand, and make what to me is the supreme sacrifice of life-long association.… Upon it I have poured out from the cup of my greatest devotion in no unstinted manner, and as the expenditure was my own, I spared no reasonable sum to adorn it, the amount of which is so large that I hesitate to mention it.” After suggesting that the house be made the Virginia residence for Presidents, Levy concluded: “I bow to your wishes and those of the American people. For this property, for which I was offered and upon which I have expended a million dollars, I designate a price of $500,000 which will make me more than half donor of Monticello, and thus consummate the people’s will.”


Half a million dollars was a stiff price in those days, but at least it was a price where none had existed before. Mrs. Littleton, having won her point in principle, could now afford to be gracious: “… in the opinion of impartial people, he has not asked a cent more for the 700 acres than they would be likely to sell for by private contract.…” Congress, however, thought otherwise, and Mrs. Littleton was obliged to organize a private Jefferson Memorial Foundation in order to raise the necessary funds. Before its aim could be even approached, the war intervened. By 1920 Levy had experienced financial reverses and was willing to bargain. In 1923 he finally parted with his treasure for $100,000 in cash and a $400,000 mortgage. It was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, which still owns and runs it.

The Levy family had been in possession of Monticello for a span of eighty-seven years, nearly as long as the ninety-one years that the property had been owned by the Jefferson family. They had loved it and cared for it with a special fervor; and there were tears in Jefferson Levy’s eyes when he signed the deed. He died less than a year later.

In 1954 the house underwent a complete renovation, and the dormer windows and all other significant Levy alterations were removed. If Thomas Jefferson were to drive up to Monticello today, he would recognize his beloved home with pleasure—and he would have no clue that a century ago it tottered on the edge of dissolution, to be saved for posterity by the energetic devotion of the Levys.