On March 22, 1862, Uriah Phillips Levy, commodore in the United States Navy, died at the age of 69.
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Levy, at the time the highest-ranking Jewish officer in the navy, is remembered for his campaign to end flogging in the service, for his struggle against anti-Semitism and for his philanthropy, which included initiating the process of buying and restoring the home of his hero, Thomas Jefferson, and donating it to his country.
Uriah Levy was born April 22, 1792, in Philadelphia, to Michael Levy and the former Rachel Phillips. His mother’s father, Jonas Phillips, had emigrated from Germany to America in 1765, and fought with the Pennsylvania militia in the Revolution; a great-great grandfather, Samuel Nunez, a Jew of Portuguese descent, arrived in the colonies in 1733, and was among the founders of the city of Savannah, Georgia.
Family tradition says that Uriah left home at age 10 to become a cabin boy on the merchant ship New Jerusalem, returning home to Philadelphia for his bar mitzvah. Later, he trained as a sailor, and served on the naval ship the Argus, which was stationed in the English Channel during the War of 1812. The ship was captured by the British in 1813, with its entire crew imprisoned in Dartmoor Prison until the end of the war the following year.
Expelled from the Navy, again
Upon his return home, Levy continued his naval career, but faced numerous obstacles to advancement. Between his combative personality and the palpable anti-Semitism in the service, he found himself court-martialed six times, and even expelled twice from the navy.
His first trial came in 1816, after he was challenged to a duel by an officer who had insulted him. Levy fought the man and killed him, but was exonerated of any crime. Another fight, three years later, led to his dismissal from the navy, only to be reinstated at the order of President James Monroe.
Again, in 1842, Levy, by then commander of the U.S.S. Vandalia, was tried and dismissed because he insisted on punishing sailors who had violated rules verbally rather than by flogging. Non-corporal punishment was considered “peculiar” by the navy, and the court ruled to dismiss Levy. Again, presidential intervention, this time by John Tyler, who commuted the sentence to a one-year suspension, saved Levy from expulsion from the navy. Later, in 1850, he was instrumental in lobbying Congress to pass a bill limiting the use of flogging in the armed forces, although it took another dozen years for it to be outlawed completely.
While on leave
For much of the period between 1841 and 1855, however, Levy was either on leave or awaiting orders. He used the time to settle in New York City, where he began investing in real estate, with great success.
As a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, who had died in 1826, Levy commissioned a sculpture of the late president during a visit to Paris, which he then donated to Congress. It stands today in the Capitol Rotunda. In 1834, he purchased a large portion of Jefferson’s Virginia plantation, Monticello, after Jefferson’s daughter had been forced to cover large debts by selling off parts of her inheritance. (Levy bought the Jefferson-designed house and 218 acres of the estate for $2,700.)
Levy preserved and restored portions of Monticello, and on his death, willed it to the American people. Congress rejected the gift, as the Civil War was then raging, and Virginia was among the seceding states, which had seized Monticello. Eventually, due in large part to the family’s efforts, Monticello did become a national museum, although its role was downplayed by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation until very recently, because of anti-Jewish prejudice, some historians claim.
In 1855, after being informed that he was being retired from the navy, Levy went to court to pursue reinstatement. Eventually, he was given command of the warship Macedonian, and of the Mediterranean fleet, and promoted to the rank of commodore (the equivalent to an admiral today). When the Civil War began, in 1860, Levy, by now back in the United States, again offered his services to his country – as well as his considerable fortune. President Lincoln installed him on the court-martial board, in Washington, ironic, considering his own half-dozen trials.
Only at age 61 did Uriah Levy marry -- to his 18-year-old niece, Virginia Lopez. He died on March 22 (some sources say March 26), 1862, at his home in New York, and was buried in the Beth Olom Cemetery, in Queens.
Among the honors bestowed on Levy’s memory by the U.S. Navy have been the naming of a destroyer ship, the Levy, which hosted the surrender ceremony of the Japanese navy in 1945, and the dedication of a chapel and educational center at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.