Uriah P. Levy


Uriah P. Levy : biography

April 22, 1792 – March 26, 1862

In 1985, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation restored the gravesite of Rachel Levy and recognized descendants of the family in a special ceremony. Since then, officials have created additional occasions to welcome members of the Levy family. The Foundation now openly celebrates Uriah P. Levy’s role in helping restore a landmark of Virginia and United States’ history. It includes information on site about his and his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy’s roles in preserving the presidential home.

Legacy and honors

  • Commodore Levy Chapel, the Jewish Chapel at Naval Station Norfolk, Norfolk, Virginia, and the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland are named in his honor.
  • 1988, listed in the Jewish-American Hall of Fame, Jewish-American Hall of Fame, accessed 8 April 2011
  • 1959, the Jewish Chapel at Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Virginia was renamed the "Commodore Levy Chapel" in Levy’s honor.
  • 2001, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation published The Levy Family and Monticello 1834-1923, a history of the Levy family’s nearly century-long contributions in saving Monticello.
  • 2005, the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel opened at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which is named in his honor.
  • The Cannon class destroyer escort, the was named in his honor. At the conclusion of World War II, the Levy hosted the surrender ceremonies of the Japanese Navy.
  • 2011 A statue of Uriah P. Levy by the Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky was dedicated on December 16, 2011, outside Mikveh Israel Synagogue on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The statue pedestal was designed by John Giungo.

Early life and education

Levy was born on April 22, 1792, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Michael and Rachel Phillips Levy. He had two older siblings. Uriah Levy was close to his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who had emigrated to the United States in 1756 from Germany, and fought with the Philadelphia militia in the American Revolution. His maternal great-great grandfather, Dr. Samuel Riberio Nunez, a Portuguese physician, was among a group of 42 Sephardic Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition of the early 16th century and migrated to England, where they settled. Descendants of that group sailed from London in 1733 and helped found the city of Savannah, Georgia, where they lived for generations.

Levy’s younger brother was Jonas Phillips Levy, who became a merchant and sea captain. He was the father of five, including the Congressman Jefferson Monroe Levy.

Philanthropic activities

Levy became wealthy by investing in New York City’s burgeoning real estate market, and used his wealth to support many philanthropic endeavors. Many of these were in support of Jewish-American life. He served as the first president of the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC. In 1854 he sponsored the new Jewish seminary of the Bnai Jeshurun Educational Institute in New York.

In 1833, the City of New York gave him the Key to the City after he presented the city with a copy of a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Levy had commissioned it in Paris by the noted sculptor David d’Angers. Levy was cited for his "character, patriotism and public spirit."

Levy is buried in Beth Olom Cemetery, Brooklyn, associated with the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.

Naval career

Family stories have it that Levy ran away from home at the age of ten and ended up serving on various vessels as a cabin boy, returning home to Philadelphia at age 13 for his bar mitzvah. In 1806, he apprenticed as a sailor.

Later he became a sailing master in the U.S. Navy, and fought in the Barbary Wars. At the age of 21, he volunteered for the War of 1812, in which he was a "supernumerary", or extra, sailing master on the , which interdicted British ships in the English Channel. The Argus seized more than twenty vessels, but was captured, her captain killed, and the entire crew, including Levy, taken prisoner. They were imprisoned by Great Britain for sixteen months until the end of the war. During his captivity, Levy had difficulty obtaining a subsidy and parole because his status as an extra master was not understood by the British Transport Board.

Upon return to the United States, Levy served aboard the as second master. Levy was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1817, master commandant in 1837, and captain in 1844.

During his tenure in the U.S. Navy, Levy faced considerable antisemitism. He reacted to slights and was court-martialed six times, and once demoted from the rank of Captain. Twice, he was dismissed from the Navy, but reinstated. He defended his conduct in his handling of naval affairs before a Court of Inquiry and in 1855 was restored to his former position. Later, in recognition of his superior abilities, Levy commanded the Mediterranean fleet. He was promoted to the rank of Commodore, then the highest rank in the U.S. Navy.

A promoter of justice and human rights, in his post as Commodore Levy was instrumental in abolishing flogging (corporal punishment) in the U.S. Navy, although his position was considered controversial at the time. In addition to changing practices in the Navy, he helped gain the support of the US Congress in passing an anti-flogging bill in 1850.

Jefferson statue

In another tribute to Jefferson, Levy commissioned a bronze statue of the President while studying naval tactics in France; he donated it to Congress in 1834. The piece currently stands in the Capitol Rotunda. The Levy statue is unique as the only privately commissioned piece of artwork in the Capitol, the rest were commissioned either by Congress or the States.

Published works

  • (Google eBook)

Marriage and family

Levy married, for the first time at the age of 61, his 18-year-old niece Virginia Lopez.