Commodore Uriah P. Levy (1792-1862): Anchors Aweigh

“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors… I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”

– Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN

It’s reasonably well known that Thomas Jefferson for all his cleverness was a complete duffer with household finance and died in debt, his estate sold off for pennies on the dollar.

A scandal, really, and as the government at that time did not take much interest in history in general or historical artifacts in particular, the lands and buildings of Monticello were more or less allowed to go to wrack and ruin.

Uriah P. Levy was a Jefferson admirer (freedom of religion being a large part of it) who thought this simply wrong.  He made it his business to buy the place in 1834 and get it back to its former glory.   The place remained in the Levy family until 1923, when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation finally caught up with his vision and bought the estate from the Levy family  and have kept it going ever since.

So who he?  A Philadelphia boy, issue of three generations of American Jews (the story of roots in 1645 New York has been dispelled) with a strong faith in the new American republic, to the point of joining the local militia.  Uriah was born in 1792.  For him was the pull of the ocean, and at age ten (ten!) stowed away on the New Jerusalem and became her cabin boy. (He was observant enough to make it back home in time for his bar mitzvah, but really, it seems more a formality in his case- clearly he was already the better part of a well made man.)

The trial by water seemed to have taken, and by 1811 after several voyages in which he learned the ropes and made some money on the side, he shipped out as both sailing master and part owner of the merchant vessel George Washington. (He did face mutiny on one voyage and, in the manner of Caesar, was compelled to hunt the pirates down after the fact and bring them to justice. The ring leader was hanged in Boston.)

When the War of 1812 erupted, Levy traded merchant cloth for navy blue;  As an experienced master mariner, he was given the choice of by-passing the Navy’s standard entry level midshipman rank and become Sailing Master, with navigation duties in period of peace, and sailing operations when the Captain was directing battle. As crew  member of the Argus, he took part in numerous takings of merchant vessels in the English Channel until they themselves were taken. The Argus was in its turn was captured by the British, resulting in the surviving crew getting a sixteen month stint in Dartmoor, ending only with the ending of the war itself.  Despite this experience, he stayed on with the navy, with tours of duty in the West Indies and Mediterranean.

While at a ball in Philadelphia, in 1816 a drunken fellow officer insulted him for being Jewish, to which he remonstrated.  The officer demanded satisfaction,  and came the loser in a duel.  The trial found Levy the aggrieved party and not guilty.   A second fight three years later which was not fatal resulted in his dismissal from the navy, but he was well enough though of that President Monroe refused to confirm the verdict.  Levy was back in business and in command of the gunboat Revenge.

Military service in those days could see lengthy periods of leave, usually at the discretion of the War Department.  During one of these in the 1830’s, Levy went to New York City where he dabbled in real estate.  His timing was fortuitous (population boom), his investments shrewd.  He set the foundation here of a considerable fortune, part of which enabled him to purchase the Monticello property, and to commission the statue of Jefferson that now stands in the hall of the Capitol Rotunda.

Back on active service in 1837, he had command of the Vedalia, on which he instituted new practices relating to ship board discipline, practices which lead to his court martial in 1842, practices ruled to be “cruel and scandalous”.   It appears he wasn’t brutal enough.  Instead of flogging, he chose public humiliation as a means of bringing the recalcitrant round to right thinking. (President Tyler reduced his punishment to a year’s suspension, and rebuked the court for excess.)

In 1855, the Naval Efficiency Board instituted a series of cut-backs, which included dismissing three captains, one of them Levy.  He contested the outcome, and with the backing of some powerful men both inside and outside the navy, he succeeded in getting reinstated.  It was pointed out that decision to retire him was based in part on his failure to enter service as Midshipman, and on the fact that he was Jewish.*

Four months after his restoration, he was promoted to Commodore (a courtesy title for senior captains – here were no admirals in the 1858 U.S. Navy) and given command of the Mediterranean fleet.

He died in 1862, and that year flogging was abolished (the Royal Navy would take another eighteen years to follow suit).  Monticello he had willed to the U.S. Government, but as it was in Confederate territory and the government didn’t want it much anyway,  the matter fell into limbo and after the war into litigation, with Levy’s nephew taking eventual ownership.

*On the other hand, he was sixty four at the time, rather an advanced age.  The numbers of naval officers was a set figure, and one did not rise until someone above you fell.  There were a good number of fairly aged lieutenants in the service at that time who were marking time far longer than they would these days.

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