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The Levys of Monticello

July 2024
14min read

Visitors to Monticello today, taking in its handsome lawns and flower beds, its beautifully finished and furnished rooms, its immaculate floors and woodwork, have no trouble picturing Thomas Jefferson entertaining such luminaries as Lafayette and Washington on these elegant premises. Yet if they could suddenly turn back the clock a hundred years, they would witness an astonishing and shocking transformation. In 1878 there were pigpens among a jungle of weeds on the front lawn; loose shutters banged in the wind before broken windows; bins of grain cluttered the otherwise empty drawing room; the back portico was so nearly buried beneath dirt and rubbish that horses and cattle could go right into the house; and clumps of grass sprouted among the splintered shingles of the leaky roof.

Monticello was saved from ignominious ruin because it had the good fortune to fall into the hands of men who believed that its builder, Thomas Jefferson, was the greatest of all Americans. To these owners—first, Uriah Phillips Levy, and later his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy-Monticello was a shrine.

“All my wishes end where I hope my days will end-at Monticello,” Jefferson had said. And there his days did end, on the Fourth of July, 1826, at the venerable age of eighty-three, as the nation celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He died believing that his most fervent wish for Monticello was assured of coming true: that his many debts would be paid and that his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, would live in the house. Unfortunately, while it was true that well-wishers had raised a fund to secure Monticello for her, there was too little money available to maintain it. The following year Mrs. Randolph sold many of the furnishings, and soon after put the place on the market. At first, the asking price was $70,000. But in Virginia most of the people who might have wanted it were land-poor; and among people of wealth, Jefferson, the egalitarian, was not a particular favorite. There was no clamor to own the great man’s house for reasons of sentiment.

Besides, Monticello as a family house was something of a white elephant. Jefferson had built it to his own, very personal taste. Not everyone would share his enthusiasm for two, narrow, cramped staircases instead of a single main one; or for a master bedroom where the bed was rather oddly wedged in an opening between bedroom and study, with a tiny clothes closet above it, reached by steep stairs. The kitchen was in the basement, far from the dining room; and on the second floor, the beds in all the bedrooms were recessed in alcoves-a pretty arrangement, but very hot in summer. Because the stairs were so narrow, all sizable objects, such as baggage, had to be hoisted to the second floor by way of the balcony that overlooked the entrance hall, or through the windows.

In the winter of 1830, while the house stood empty, the redoubtable Washington journalist, Anne Royall, passed through Charlottesville and hired a carriage to take her up to Monticello. It was a snowy Sunday. The house looked deserted, but Mrs. Royall was not the sort to be easily put off. Receiving no answer to her knock, she walked in and through the house until she found “a great coarse Irish woman” sitting by a fire. Although the Randolph family had left instructions that the house was to be shown free of charge, the woman refused to stir until she was paid fifty cents. Then Mrs. Royall was escorted through all the empty rooms, except Mr. Jefferson’s bedroom, which was kept closed.

“There was not what we would call a large room in the whole,” Anne Royall reported; “It was much plainer than I expected.” However, she did admire the marble mantelpieces. The only furniture she saw were two French mirrors (they are there still, never having left the house); a bust of Voltaire, by Houdon; various bedsteads, chairs, broken or cracked china and glass, and, in the attic, an old spinet that had belonged to Mrs. Jefferson.

Pausing at the graveyard on the road up “the little mountain,” she observed that there was no headstone on Jefferson’s grave.

The following year, one James Barclay, of Charlottesville, bought the house and a few hundred acres (of the original 5,682 acres) for $7,000, with the intention of turning the place into a silk farm. It could hardly have fallen into worse hands. Barclay destroyed Jefferson’s lawns and most of his poplars in order to plant mulberry orchards, which did not thrive. He threw the Voltaire bust into a field, declaring that Voltaire was an antichrist. He planted vegetables near the house, and kept his silkworms in the conservatory. The enterprise failed within five years, and Barclay then decided to become a missionary and go to the Holy Land. Once more Monticello was on the market.

Mrs. Randolph had gone to live with her daughter, Mrs. Coolidge, in Boston. Among patriotic citizens of that city an effort was made to raise money to buy Monticello back for her, and apparently there was a similar project in Philadelphia. An oft-repeated story is that a young emissary of one or the other of these fund-raising groups traveled to Charlottesville in the same stagecoach with another potential buyer, Uriah Levy, and that Levy got the young man so drunk that he did not sober up until Levy had bought the house for himself. No authentication has been found for this story, and it has the earmarks of an ill-natured invention.

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.

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).

Congress, beset by Civil War problems and finding the will entirely too complicated, turned down the gift. The executors of the will brought suit for their own protection as administrators of the estate, and the case dragged on for years, even becoming a textbook example for study in law schools. In the end the will was set aside. One of Uriah’s nephews, Jefferson Monroe Levy, who had been a child when his uncle died but who by this time was a young lawyer in New York City, bought out the other Levy heirs. In 1879 he became the owner of Monticello.

Like his uncle, the younger Levy was passionately devoted to the memory of Thomas Jefferson. His first act was to fire the caretaker, Joel Wheeler, who had allowed the place to become äshambles. Not only were the house and grounds on the way to ruin, but Wheeler had been picking up a little extra income by allowing groups to use the place for picnics and parties.

Under a new caretaker, Thomas Rhodes, restoration was initiated-a process that was seemingly endless. With the help of Confederate bills of sale, Levy was able to reclaim some of the vanished furnishings; others he had reproduced. To anyone who brought things back voluntarily, he refunded the purchase price. He replaced the Wedgwood plaques on the dining-room mantel, which had been hacked out by souvenir hunters. And once again the beautiful parquet floors were restored.


So far, so good. But other things he did were controversial, iwen tor late Victorian times, Levy’s taste was heavy. Visitors coming up the drive encountered a formidable pair of stone lions, each holding a shield with the letter L engraved upon it. The drawing room acquired tasseled draperies, embroidered in gold with L . Tapestries showing Spanish scenes were flung over the entrance-hall balcony; an oak dining set overwhelmed the dining room; the tea room was crammed with wicker, and in Jefferson’s bedroom, occupied by Mr. Levy, there was a Louis XIV bed on a dais. Jefferson’s bed was removed from its alcove and stored in the attic-f or which Levy was criticized, although he would probably have been criticized even more severely had he slept in it himself. It was almost impossible to live in a national shrine without enraging the bystanders; and, after all, as reasonable people pointed out, the house owed its very survival to its new owner.

Jefferson Monroe Levy was elected a Democratic congressman from New York in 1898, and again in 1912. He was a stately, formal man who enjoyed ceremony. On the Fourth of July he used to have a band come up from Charlottesville to play on the Monticello lawn for a small group of guests. From Jefferson’s music stand he would read aloud the Declaration of Independence, and then he would cause the air to be filled with fireworks which could be seen for miles around.

He was gracious about tourists and usually admitted all comers to the grounds. The house was opened on written request, and University of Virginia professors had a standing invitation. When visitors arrived at the gate, old Eliza, the gatekeeper, rang a bell that sounded all over the “little mountain"; he also collected a fee, which was given to charities in Charlottesville. At times there were several hundred visitors a day. The graveyard, officially the property of Jefferson descendants, to whom Levy granted right of access, now had a new monument and a high fence.

Levy remodeled the second floor, installing dormer windows at each end, and an elaborate tiled bathroom. In 1895 he asked the prestigious architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White to submit plans for enlarging Monticello. When they refused, saying that any addition would ruin Jefferson’s design, Levy gave up the idea.

All in all, the old house was sound again by the turn of the century, and was being lived in, at least in summer. Jefferson Levy never married. He invited his sister, Mrs. Amelia von Mayhoff, to preside as his hostess. With her came her husband and small son; and a brother, Louis Napoleon Levy, brought his wife and four little girls. There were also a governess and nursery maid and a staff of Irish servants from New York. Monticello had become a turn-of-the-century summer home-more Yankee than Southern and more Levy than Jefferson.

And now began the agitation to make Monticello an official national shrine and museum. As transportation by rail improved, the trickle of tourists became a torrent, and the advent of the automobile clearly portended a tourist avalanche. In 1901 Congressman Levy was asked to play host to over 250 members of the St. Louis Jefferson Club, who arrived by special train. There was a luncheon, with speeches, and then club members erected a large memorial, made of Missouri granite, at the northeast end of the house (where it still stands). In 1906 there was an official visit from President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt. T.R. insisted on riding up from Charlottesville on horseback, to the discomfiture of some Secret Service men who were indifferent riders and who followed as best they could, hanging onto their horses precariously. It was a sight that is still remembered in Charlottesville.

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.

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