Past & Present / Living History
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

When Monticello had a mezuzah

(How an American-Jewish patriot saved Thomas Jefferson's architectural masterpiece)

By Herb Geduld

PERCHED MAJESTICALLY on a small hillside in Virginia overlooking Charlottesville and the University of Virginia is one of America's most important historical and architectural inheritances. It is Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. The fact that this national treasure remains intact for American to view today is due to the little-known efforts of a patriotic early Jewish-American hero, Commodore Uriah P. Levy, and his family.

Nowhere in Monticello itself is there any sign or plaque mentioning this, nor is it acknowledged by the docents who escort you through the home. Only at the end of the guidebook available at the site is there a small but significant paragraph which acknowledges Levy's efforts:

"Without the efforts of this family (the Levys) which actually owned the house for 89 years -- a far longer period than did Jefferson -- Monticello might not be today on the top of its 'little mountain.'"

Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, the man who saved Monticello, was America's first high-ranking Jewish naval officer and certainly one of the most fascinating and flamboyant characters in Jewish American history. He was born in Philadelphia in 1792, a grandson of Jonas Phillips, a soldier in the Revolutionary War. At the age of ten, Levy ran off to sea and spent his entire life in the Navy, eventually rising to the top rank of Commodore.

Levy's career was a checkered one. His progress in the Navy was often blocked by blatant antisemitism, which he fought vigorously both in duels and courts-martial. He is best remembered today for his successful campaign to abolish flogging in the U.S. Navy.

Levy was an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson. He considered him one of the greatest Americans, especially because of Jefferson's ideals and actions on behalf of religious freedom. Jefferson, a soft touch for penniless relatives, died insolvent on July 4, 1826, 50 years to the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, which he had authored.

Jefferson's family struggled to maintain Monticello -- going so far as to hold what must have been one of the greatest house sales in American history -- but they were unsuccessful. In 1831, the property was sold to James Barclay, a Charlottesville apothecary, for $4,500.

The Barclays did not enjoy living at Monticello because of the hordes of sightseers and visitors who descended upon the home and sought desperately to sell it.

A buyer was finally found when Commodore Levy, on shore leave in New York, found out about the sale and immediately resolved to buy the property of the man he so much admired. After some litigation concerning the extent of the property, Levy purchased Monticello and the 218 acres surrounding it in 1836 for $2,700. He restored the badly neglected home to its former glory and spent his summers in it with his young wife.

In his will, written in 1858, he bequeathed Monticello to the people of the United States or, if Congress refused to accept it, to the State of Virginia, to be used as an agricultural school for the education of orphaned children of U.S. Navy warrant officers.

Before Congress could respond, the Civil War broke out. Monticello was confiscated and illegally sold by the Confederacy. After its restoration at the end of the war, many of Levy's scattered heirs -- he died childless -- successfully contested the will, a process which took many years. It was not until 1881 that Uriah's nephew, named, appropriately enough, Jefferson Monroe Levy, finally persuaded the other heirs to sell him their shares of the estate, allowing him to move into Monticello.

The Civil War and the turmoil of litigation had taken its toll on the property, which had been in the hands of an inept caretaker. Monticello was a shambles. Jefferson Levy spent thousands of dollars and years of effort to refurbish the property, including seeking out and repurchasing Jefferson's original furnishings. By the turn of the century, Monticello was almost restored to its original beauty. Levy, a bachelor who served two terms in Congress as a representative from New York, spent his summers at Monticello and opened the home to tourists. Neither the Federal Government nor the State of Virginia showed any inclination to acquire the property as a public trust.

In 1923, on Jefferson's 180th birthday, a private, non-profit organization, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, was organized in New York. On December 23, 1923, the Foundation purchased the property from the Levy family which had preserved this priceless heritage for the nation.

TODAY, if a curious visitor walks a few steps along the road that passes by the souvenir shop on the west side of the Monticello grounds, he will come across a worn granite slab gravestone which reads:

To the Memory of Rachel Phillips Levy
Born in New York 23 of May, 1769
Married 1787,
Died 7 of Iyar,
May 5591
A.D. 1839 at Monticello, Va.
This slab, the only evidence of the Levys' long sojourn there, marks the grave of Uriah Levy's mother, who died on a visit to her son's home. It is not mentioned in any of the guidebooks or pamphlets on Monticello.

Jewish historian and cultural maven Herb Geduld lives in Cleveland. As of this issue, he becomes a regular contributor to JWR.


© 1998, Herb Geduld