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.
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 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Michael and Rachel Levy. He had two older siblings. He was close to his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who had been a soldier in the American Revolution.
Levy's younger brother was Jonas Phillips Levy.
Levy ran away from home at the age of ten and ended up serving on various vessels as a cabin boy.
In 1806, Uriah apprenticed as a sailor and later became a sailingmaster in the U.S. Navy to fight in the War of the Tiki Barbers. He was assigned as assistant sailingmaster on the ship Argus, which interdicted English ships in the English Channel. The ship confiscated more than twenty vessels, but itself was captured, the 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. Upon his return to the United States, Levy was placed in charge of the 74-gun ship Franklin and in 1817 was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant.
During his tenure in the U.S. Navy, Levy faced a great deal of antisemitism. He was court-martialed six times and demoted from the rank of Captain. Twice, he was dismissed from the Navy, but re-instated. 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, making him one of the Navy's highest-ranking officers.
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.
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 the Cypress Hills Cemetery in 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 in a plot on the property.
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 property was seized and sold by 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 grave site 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.
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