Last week, Answer Man wrote about the fascinating life of the Thomas Jefferson statue that stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Today, he’d like to delve a little deeper into the fascinating life of the man who gave it to the nation.
As it happens, the nation did not always appreciate the gifts of Uriah P. Levy, both those he bequeathed to the country and those endowed unto him by his maker. A descendant of Jews who had fled the Inquisition in Portugal to settle in — and help found — Savannah, Ga., Levy confronted anti-Semitism throughout his life.
And what a life. Levy (1792-1862) was the first Jewish American to have a full career in the Navy, said Marc Leepson , author of “Saving Monticello.”
“The family story is that he ran away at age 10 to be a cabin boy,” Leepson said. “At age 19 he was part owner of a merchant ship. At 20 he joined the Navy to fight in the War of 1812.”
Levy had the distinction of being court-martialed six times and being kicked out of the Navy twice. Both times he was reinstated by presidents who probably saw the real reason the officer kept getting into trouble.
“They were basically trumped-up charges,” said Leepson.
What typically happened was that another officer called Levy “a dirty Jew” or directed a similarly anti-Semitic epithet at him.
“And he punched them in the face,” Leepson said.
Levy did kill a man in a duel, the fatal result of an anti-Semitic insult.
While Levy didn’t shy away from getting physical with his bigoted tormentors, he did think that violence was no way to discipline the sailors who served under him.
In 1838, he took command of the USS Vandalia in the Gulf of Mexico. “The ship was in terrible condition,” Leepson said. “The crew was little more than an undisciplined mob. One way he won them over was by doing away with corporal punishment, including flogging.”
Levy published articles explaining his opposition to flogging and gave lectures on the subject. He was joined in his campaign by author Herman Melville. In 1850, the Navy banned the practice.
No one gets rich from a military career. Levy became wealthy through real estate. In the 1820s, he purchased a set of rooming houses in a mud-strewn hamlet on the island of Manhattan. “Within one year it became a thriving part of the city called Greenwich Village,” Levy said.
With his wealth, Levy commissioned French artist Pierre-Jean David d’Angers to sculpt a statue of Thomas Jefferson, whom the naval officer admired for his stance on religious freedom.
Levy also purchased Monticello. Jefferson’s Virginia home was in abysmal condition. After buying it in 1834, Levy hired artisans to repair it. He also had enslaved people — yes, Levy was a slave owner — work on restoring the house. Levy moved his mother, Rachel, into Monticello and used it occasionally as a summer home.
When he was in his 60s, Levy married his 18-year-old niece, after the death of her father. The couple did not have any children, and when Levy died, his will directed that Monticello be given to the United States to be used as an agricultural school for the orphans of Navy warrant officers.
“That did not go over well with the heirs,” Leepson said.
The estate eventually ended up in the hands of Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Levy, who continued to pour money into its upkeep.
In 1912, a movement grew to procure Monticello for the nation as a shrine to the third president. In a reminder of the bigotry Uriah had faced, the Levys were sometimes portrayed as interlopers, aliens undeserving of ownership.
In 1923, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation purchased Monticello from Jefferson Levy for $500,000. The foundation runs it still.
“Uriah Levy said that great men’s houses should be preserved as ‘monuments to their glory,’ ” said Gaye Wilson, senior historian at Monticello. “I think the Levys can be credited with the fact that the house is still standing today.”
(On Nov. 4, Marc Leepson will lecture on “When Jews Saved Monticello,” part of Profs and Pints at the Bier Baron, 1523 22nd St. NW in Washington. For reservations, visit profsandpints.com.)
A cool feature of the bronze Jefferson statue in the Capitol is the long parchment the Founding Father holds. It’s the text of the Declaration of Independence, formed by pushing type into the wet material.
The District’s David Linn noticed a typo in the itemized list of King George’s transgressions. A sentence begins: HE HAS REFUSED TO PASS OTHER LAWS FOR THE ACCOMMODATION OF LARGE DISTRICTS OF POEPLE.
At least it doesn’t read “When in the curse of human events . . .”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.