Uriah Phillips Levy
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Revision as of 10:08, 9 January 2008
Uriah Phillips Levy (1792-1862), U.S. naval officer, is one of the great characters in American Jewish history. He was pugnacious, determined, eccentric, confirmed in the righteousness of his causes, an able businessman who was quite wealthy, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson. His admiration rested on Mr. Jefferson's well-deserved reputation as a champion of religious liberty not toleration, but liberty. "I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history," Levy declared, "the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did 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's admiration for Jefferson first expressed itself in a unique gift that the lieutenant made to the government and the people of the United States. As he wrote to his attorney, George Carr, "there is no statue to Jefferson in the Capitol in Washington. As a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to commission a statue." And the statue, in its way, led to Monticello.
There are three stories as to why and how Levy purchased the house. The first two are interesting, one for its implicit antisemitism and the other for its romantic nonsense. Both are totally unsubstantiated by any evidence whatsoever, except that after being told once, they wound up being repeated elsewhere. According to the first account, after Martha Jefferson Randolph sold Monticello she went to live with her daughter in Boston. A group of patriotic Americans decided that at the very least Jefferson's daughter ought to be able to live at Monticello, since Jefferson had given his life, in a way, for his country. They sent a representative to Boston to see if she would accept the gift, and upon her assent, he sped back to Virginia to consummate the purchase from Barclay. But he stopped in New York for a few days to raise funds, and at a dinner one evening met Lieutenant Levy and told him of his plan. The next morning the "crafty Jew" Levy sped south, purchased Monticello, and thus thwarted the noble and patriotic effort to return the family homestead to Jefferson's beloved daughter.
The second unsubstantiated account has Levy in the White House meeting with President Andrew Jackson. Levy supposedly said to Jackson that he had heard about the sad state of Monticello, and had been thinking of buying it "in honor of Mr. Jefferson, whom I love." General Jackson replied with vigor, "I order you, sir, to buy it." "I always obey the orders of my superior, Mr. President," Levy replied, and headed up the mountain.
The third account seems far more reliable, plus we have some corroborating evidence to support it. Levy had gone to France in 1832 to study advanced naval tactics and while there arranged to meet a man who was undoubtedly a hero to many of Levy's generation, the Marquis de Lafayette. He told Lafayette about his plan to have a statue made, and the nobleman, who had been a friend of Jefferson for nearly a half-century, lent Levy a portrait of Jefferson by Thomas Sully that he owned. The great French sculptor Pierre Jean David d'hgers then executed a full-length likeness of Jefferson based on the portrait, and in March 1834, Levy presented the statue to the Congress. It still stands in the great rotunda of the Capitol, the only statue there provided for by private funds.
During Levy's visit with Lafayette, the aging marquis had inquired as to the well-being of Martha Randolph and of Monticello. Levy did not know, but he promised to find out as soon as be returned to America. After taking care of business matters-Levy was a very successful real estate speculator and owner in New York - he did go south and discovered Monticello to have been shabbily treated by Barclay, who was then eager to sell. In early April 1834, barely two weeks after presenting the statue to Congress, Levy and Barclay struck a bargain -the house and some acreage for $2700. Because Barclay had been selling off land it was not clear just how much property remained to go with the house, and it took a lawsuit to quiet title. In May 1836 the suit was settled, and Levy received the house and 218 acres of land in a deed of conveyance. "My heart leaped," Levy declared when he became the owner of Monticello.
For those of us who are used to seeing Monticello as it is today, lovingly restored to what our best knowledge tells us was Mr. Jefferson's plan, it is hard to envision the great house as seedy or run-down. In fact, it was already looking that way in the last years of Jefferson's life. He was so far in debt that he did not have the money necessary to make the needed repairs or to do the preventive maintenance that the house required. A visitor in 1824-two years before Jefferson's death-reported that the mansion was "old and going to decay," and that the gardens and lawns were "slovenly."
Barclay, of course, did nothing to repair the damage. He had bought the property to indulge his hare-brained scheme, and he thought nothing of cutting down the beautiful poplar trees that Jefferson had so lovingly planted. He planted vegetables next to the house and kept his silkworms in the conservatory. Despite his widow's recollection years later that they had taken good care of the house, contemporary reports belie that contention. The house that Uriah Levy bought was outstanding in design and built on a strong foundation but badly in need of repair.
On this work Levy gladly embarked, and from all reports did so successfully. Levy assembled a small army of workers-including over a dozen slaves that he purchased-and put them to work cleaning out the interior of the house, making needed repairs on the outside, and restoring the landscaped gardens and lawns. There are conflicting accounts as to whether Levy actually managed to buy some of Jefferson's original furnishings that had been sold at auction after his death, but he did go to great lengths to restore the house to its former glory. He put in working order the seven-day clock that had been made to Jefferson's specifications in 1793, and also restored the body of a two-wheel carriage that tradition, if not fact, claims to have been the one Jefferson rode to Philadelphia in 1775 for the Continental Congress.
Levy was in residence at Monticello only sporadically due to his career as a naval officer and his business holdings in New York. However, he brought his mother, Rachel Phillips Levy, to preside over the estate in his absence, and when she died, she was buried on the mountaintop not far from the house. Levy also hired Joel Wheeler as an overseer, and although Wheeler would later do great damage to Monticello, initially he shared his employer's passion for restoring the house and grounds.
Levy died in 1862, and is buried in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn in the cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. In his will drawn in 1858, Levy bequeathed a dower's share to his wife, various gifts and mourning rings to friends and family, and then left Monticello to the government of the United States, along with the income from his considerable estate valued at over $300,000-for the support of an agricultural farm there for the orphaned sons of seamen and others. Should the government decline, it was then to be offered to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then to the three Sephardic synagogues of Philadelphia, New York and Newport.
- Leepson, Marc. Saving Monticello: the Levy family’s epic quest to rescue the house that Jefferson built, New York: Free Press, 2001.
- Urofsky, Melvin I. Saving Mr. Jefferson's House: The Levy Family and Monticello, 1834-1923. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 2000. Available for purchase at Monticello Gift Shop