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Uriah P. Levy

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Uriah Phillips Levy (April 22, 1792 – March 26, 1862) was the first Jewish Commodore of the United States Navy and a veteran of the War of 1812. 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 ended the Navy's practice of flogging, and prevailed against the antisemitic bigotry he faced among his fellow naval officers.

Levy is also known for his purchase and restoration of Thomas Jefferson's estate, Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Jewish Chapel at the United States Naval Station at 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. Also, he was the namesake of a Cannon class destroyer escort, the USS Levy (DE-162).


Levy was born on April 22, 1792, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Michael and Rachel Phillips Levy. He had two older siblings. His maternal great-great grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunes Riberio, a Portuguese physician, was among a group of forty-two Sephardi Jews who had escaped the Spanish Inquisition, and sailed from London in 1733 to help found the city of Savannah, Georgia. 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.

Levy's younger brother was Jonas Phillips Levy the father of Congressman Jefferson Monroe Levy.

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 and later became a sailing master in the U.S. Navy, fighting in the Barbary Wars. In the War of 1812 he was a "supernumerary", or extra, sailing master on the USS Argus, which interdicted British ships in the English Channel. The Argus seized more than twenty vessels, but itself was captured, her captain killed, and the entire crew, including Levy, taken prisoner.[1] 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 ambiguous to the British Transport Board.[2] Upon return to the United States, Levy served aboard the USS Franklin 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 a great deal of antisemitism. He 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, 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, which resulted in Congressional approval of an anti-flogging bill in 1850.[3]

Philanthropic activities

Levy became wealthy by investing in New York City's then-burgeoning real estate market, using 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[3] and in 1854 he sponsored the new Jewish seminary of the Bnai Jeshurun Educational Institute in New York.

In 1833, the City of New York bestowed upon him the Key to the City after he presented the city with a copy of a statue of Thomas Jefferson that Levy had commissioned 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 in Queens, New York.


In 1834, Levy purchased Jefferson's run-down estate, Monticello. Jefferson had left his beloved home to his daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, upon his death in 1826. Financial difficulties led Jefferson's daughter to sell portions of the estate's land and nearly all of the home's furniture and artifacts before Monticello itself was sold in 1831 to a Charlottesville pharmacist, James Turner Barclay.

Levy was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, for his ideals of governance and freedom of religion. It was this admiration that caused Levy to purchase Monticello from Barclay. Levy repaired, restored, and preserved the long-neglected home and proudly showed it off to visitors.

Despite his great interest in Jefferson, Levy never made Monticello his permanent residence. His Navy career and business commitments kept Levy primarily in New York, and he used Monticello only as a vacation home. He did, however, move his widowed mother, Rachel Levy, to Monticello in 1837. She became the steward of the estate until her death in 1839. She is buried along 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 that war, the property was seized and sold by the Confederate government, but Levy's lawyers recovered the property after the war. Following two lawsuits by family members over his will, Levy's nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, bought out the other heirs and took control of the property in 1879.

Like his uncle, Jefferson Levy 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, which converted the home into a museum.

The history of the Levy family's role in preserving Monticello was dismissed throughout much of the 20th century due, it is thought, to anti-Semitic views among the American public. Not until the 1980s did the truth resurface about the Levys' involvement in Monticello.

In 1985, the gravesite of Rachel Levy was restored in a special ceremony, and, since then, the members of the Levy family have been welcomed back to Monticello during special visits. The foundation now recognizes Uriah P. Levy's role in helping restore a piece of America's history and includes information about his and the family's involvement in preserving the Presidential home.

In another tribute to Jefferson, Levy commissioned the creation of a bronze statue of the President and donated it to Congress; the piece currently stands in the Capitol Rotunda. The Levy statue is unique in being the only private piece of artwork in the Capitol, the rest having been commissioned either by Congress or the States.

Further reading


  1. Dye 2006, p. 26
  2. Dye 2006, pp. 46-47
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jewish Chapel Is Set to Open at Naval Academy, By Hamil R. Harris, Washington Post, September 17, 2005; Page B09 [1]
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Uriah P. Levy. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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