How America's First Jewish Commodore Saved Monticello
Uriah P. Levy’s obscurity reflects the lingering impact of the anti-Semitism that dismissed his accomplishments—yet also inspired his devotion to Thomas Jefferson.
As the token Jew in America’s pre-Civil War Navy who rescued Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Commodore Uriah P. Levy demonstrated how far Jews could go back then—and how deeply hatred of Jews ran back then, too.
You don’t have to be Jewish to love Uriah Phillips Levy—or to wonder why this American hero remains unknown. The first Jew to reach the top naval rank of commodore, Levy fought honorably during the War of 1812, surviving British imprisonment. A pioneer in applying his era’s reforming spirit to the military, he opposed flogging as abusive. He also emerged as perhaps America’s first historical preservationist, saving Jefferson’s architectural jewel, Monticello, from decay. Today, Jefferson’s statue adorns the Capitol Rotunda thanks to Levy—the only statue there privately donated.
Levy’s obscurity reflects the lingering impact of the anti-Semitism that dismissed his accomplishments—yet also inspired his devotion to Jefferson.
In the 1800s, a Jewish sailor seemed as likely as a Christian rabbi. When Levy was born in Philadelphia in 1792, barely 2,000 Jews lived in a country of 4 million. Moreover, the Navy has long been the most aristocratic service. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a tough Irish-Catholic kid from New York, would enter Naval ROTC a century later in 1944, he would conclude that most of his comrades “needed a good swift kick in their blue-blood asses.”
The bigots who repeatedly dismissed Levy as an “outsider” and “alien” overlooked his impressive American bloodline. A fifth-generation American in a nation of immigrants, he was the great-great grandson of Dr. Samuel Nunez, who founded Savannah, Georgia upon arriving from Portugal in 1733.
Despite this pedigree, Levy was tough and prickly. He would be court-martialed six times, usually for violent responses to slurs, or perceived slurs. He even killed one tormentor in a duel. Two Presidents saved his career; James Monroe, then John Tyler. Still, Levy would sigh, that he was “forced to encounter a large share of the prejudice and hostility by which, for so many ages, the Jew has been persecuted.”
When he was ten, Levy ran away from home to be a cabin boy on the aptly named New Jerusalem. He visited home to be bar mitzvahed when he was 13, but couldn’t remain a landlubber. During his first stint as a captain in 1807—and subsequently—Levy insisted that the sailors consecrate Sunday, their Sabbath, with prayers and limited chores.
During the War of 1812, Levy volunteered as “proof of love to my country,” becoming the acting Lieutenant on the Argus. After surviving sixteen months in England’s brutal Dartmoor prison, on his next assignment Levy lashed out when a drunken officer insulted him. During the resulting duel, Levy honorably shot over his opponent’s head. When a return bullet nicked his own ear, Levy changed his strategy: Levy shot to kill—and did, prompting his first court-martial, and acquittal.
In 1825, Americans and Brazilians toasted him when he freed an American impressed—essentially kidnapped— into the Brazilian Navy. Brazil’s impressed Emperor, Dom Pedro, tried commissioning him as a captain in his Navy. Levy responded: “I would rather serve as a cabin boy in the United States Navy than hold the rank of Admiral in any other service in the world.”
Such shining moments were rare. While enduring anti-Semitism from subordinate and superiors, Levy infuriated the higher-ups by preferring public reprimands to flogging. Navy convention then considered the lash of the tongue harsher than the lash of the whip. Levy disagreed—triggering another court-martial in 1842 for imposing “cruel and scandalous” punishment. President Tyler intervened. Eventually, Congress outlawed flogging in 1862.
In 1857 Levy became famous for championing religious equality and Jewish dignity. Barred from the navy on bogus charges of “incompetency,” Levy made his trial what some consider the first public confrontation against American anti-Semitism. “What is my case today, if you yield to this injustice, may tomorrow be that of the Roman Catholic or the Unitarian, the Episcopalian or the Methodist, the Presbyterian or the Baptist,” he warned. “There is but one safeguard, and this is to be found in an honest, wholehearted, inflexible support of the wise, the just, the impartial guarantee of the Constitution.” The court restored him to active duty, unanimously—leading to his commanding the Mediterranean fleet.
Amid this stormy naval career, Levy made scads of money in New York real estate. In the 1830s, he plunged into historic preservation. Levy admired Jefferson for doing so “much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.” Levy commissioned the Jefferson statue still in the Rotunda in 1834. Likely encouraged by a then-aging Marquis de Lafayette, Levy then visited Jefferson’s former home, Monticello.
Jefferson’s delight had become a disaster-area. Heavily in debt, Jefferson had sold the estate and it was now practically abandoned. Levy bought the place for $2,700—wasting two years in litigation defining the size of the plot. Although his mother moved to Monticello, he invested in repairing it and willed it to the American people out of altruism. But bigoted backbiters in his lifetime and subsequently, concocted an alternative tale.
A “patriotic” Virginian was about to buy the property to help Jefferson’s daughter Martha Randolph. Instead, he got drunk and the “crafty Jew” (Judah Levy—further Jewifying Levy’s first name) swept in, placing this American treasure in “alien” hands. When the now-sobered Virginian pleaded for another shot at purchasing, Levy somehow lost his American accent, to say: “'Mein frien' you are a glever feller, but you talk too much. I will take a huntret tousand tollars.” Levy’s alleged attempt to make a nearly-forty-fold profit overnight, “ought to bring a blush of shame to every American face,” newspapers lectured decades later, perpetuating this lie.
Levy died in 1862. His nephew, Congressman Jefferson Monroe Levy faced similar prejudices. In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation purchased the place—with the building not just saved but strengthened and some treasures restored thanks to the Levys.
Levy proudly claimed that his fellow American Jews were “unsurpassed” by any other Americans “in loyalty to the Constitution, and to the Union; by their support of our laws; by the cheerfulness with which they contribute to the public burthens; and by the liberal donations many of them have made to promote the general interests of education and charity.”
Uriah P. Levy was buried in a traditional Jewish ceremony—and with full military honors. He remained proud of his heritage. “My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors,” he would say. “I am an American, a sailor, and a Jew.”
It’s fashionable today to reduce Monticello to a white monument celebrating white hypocrisy, a place haunted by slaves, and now by the humiliated Jew Uriah P. Levy. But that’s not how Levy saw himself. He defied anti-Semitism but wouldn’t be defined by it. He would insist that we acknowledge the horrors, stand up for justice, not whitewash the past—but also acknowledge his hero Thomas Jefferson’s legacy in helping America flourish democratically. Finger-pointing history, and either-or partisanship are too easy. In our flawed but ever-improving democracy, we should remember the bad, acknowledge the good and demand the best in the future.
FOR FURTHER READING
Ira Dye, Uriah Levy: Reformer of the Antebellum Navy, 2006.
Donovan Fitzpatrick and Saul Saphire, Navy Maverick: Uriah Phillips Levy, 1963.