Uriah P. Levy : biography
Uriah Phillips Levy (April 22, 1792 – March 26, 1862) was the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a major philanthropist. At the time, Commodore was the highest rank obtainable in the U.S. Navy and would be roughly equivalent to the modern-day rank of Admiral. During his tenure, he was instrumental in helping to end the Navy's practice of flogging, and prevailed against the antisemitic prejudice he faced among some of his fellow naval officers.
In 1834 Levy purchased and began the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's estate, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. His donation of it to the United States Congress in 1862 was rejected due to the wartime crisis. In 1879 his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy bought out other heirs and contracted for renewed restoration and preservation of the property. Their work and private money preserved it for the American people. In 1923 Monticello was purchased by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and adapted as a house museum. Uriah Levy commissioned a bronze statue of Jefferson in France in 1832 and donated it to Congress. Now in the Capitol Rotunda, it is the only privately commissioned artwork in the Capitol.
Levy was the namesake of the World War II Cannon class destroyer escort, the .
In 1834, Levy purchased Jefferson's run-down plantation Monticello and the 218 acres of land around it for $2,700 from James Turner Barclay, a pharmacist. Jefferson had left his beloved home to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, upon his death in 1826. The estate was encumbered with more than $107,000 in debt and she had additional family financial difficulties due to her husband's debts. Martha Randolph gradually sold portions of the plantation's land and nearly all of the home's furniture and artifacts. She sold the Monticello property in 1831 to Barclay.
Levy was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson for his ideal freedom of religion. He had said of the president: "I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history, the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mould our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life."
Levy purchased Monticello from Barclay and undertook to have the long-neglected home fully repaired, restored, and preserved. In addition, he bought hundreds of additional acres that had originally belonged to the plantation. He proudly showed off the property to visitors. Levy never made Monticello his permanent residence, as his Navy career and business commitments kept him primarily in New York. He used Monticello as a vacation home and moved his widowed mother, Rachel Levy, there in 1837. She became the steward of the estate until her death in 1839. She is buried along Mulberry Row, the walk approaching the main house.
In his will, Levy left Monticello to the American people to be used as an agricultural school for the orphans of Navy warrant officers. Upon his death in 1862, however, Congress refused to accept the donation due to the crisis caused by the American Civil War. During the war, the Confederate government seized and sold the property. Levy's lawyers for his estate recovered the property after the war.
Following two lawsuits by family members over Levy's will, with 47 parties to the suit, in 1879 his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy bought out the other heirs for $10,050, and took control of Monticello. The war and lengthy lawsuits had caused neglect of the property. Jefferson Levy also spent an enormous amount of money repairing, restoring and preserving Monticello. He sold it in 1923 to a private non-profit group, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (then called the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation), which adapted the home and associated property as a museum. It began additional restoration and preservation work as well.
The history of the Levy family's role in preserving Monticello was downplayed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation through much of the 20th century. Historians believe that is due to anti-Semitic views among its board and members, although the Levys had roots in the South since 1733. Not until the 1980s were the facts rediscovered about the critical private roles of two Levy men in preserving and restoring Monticello for the American public.
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