This Day in Jewish History

1886: Controversy-beset First Jewish U.S. Senator Dies

America frowned on the senator zig-zagging on the Confederacy: 'It was because his Jew heart did not get all it craved that he urged the secession of Florida.'

Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Wikimedia Commons

On October 10, 1886, David Levy Yulee, the first Jew elected to the United States Senate and the man considered the “Father of Florida’s railroads,” died, at the age of 76.

Yulee was born as David Levy on June 10, 1810, on the island of St. Thomas, then part of the Danish West Indies. His father, Moses Elias Levy, was a Sephardi Jew who had been born in Morocco to a man who had had a position in the court of the Moroccan emperor (although Moses liked to tell people his father had been no less than grand vizier). David’s mother, Hannah Abendanone, was also of Sephardi descent, although by way of England.

Realizing that Florida, then a Spanish possession, was likely to become part of the United States, Moses Levy bought a large parcel of land – 50,000 acres – stretching from the area of St. Augustine, on Florida’s northern Atlantic coast, inland to Alachua County. His intention, it is said, was to turn it into a haven for European Jews, to be called New Pilgrimage.

The Levy family relocated to Micanopy, Florida, in 1820, and David was sent north to Virginia to attend Norfolk Academy, a prestigious boarding school. He was forced to leave school in the wake of a conflict with his father, and he returned to Florida.

Although Levy worked for some time on the family plantation, he was set on becoming a lawyer, and moved to St. Augustine, where he studied the field under the guidance of Judge Robert Raymond Reid, who later became Florida’s territorial governor.  

Levy was admitted to the bar in 1832, and five years later was elected to the territorial legislature. He was a delegate to the convention that wrote Florida’s constitution, and in 1841 was elected as a territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress. After Florida gained statehood -- a move that he pushed hard for, against some opposition in the territory -- in 1845, he was elected its first senator, which coincidentally made him the body’s first Jewish member.

Did the 'Wickliffe Madonna' cringe at being a Levy?

Levy married Nancy Wickliffe, the daughter of a former governor of Kentucky, in 1845. He accepted Presbyterian Christianity, and in December of 1845, he had the Florida legislature pass an act officially changing his surname to “Yulee.”

There are several explanations given for this move, all or none of which may be true. One is that Nancy, a great beauty known among her contemporaries as the “Wickliffe Madonna,” was reluctant to marry a man with a Jewish surname, so he willingly changed it. Another version says that “Yulee” had actually been his father’s original family name, and that Moses Levy had replaced it years before with his mother’s maiden name. After David and Moses quarreled, the spiteful son was happy to go back to the surname dropped by his father in his youth.

In the Senate, the man now called Yulee was a strong supporter of states’ rights and of slavery: He was a slaveholder himself, owning a 5,000-acre sugar-cane plantation. From early on, he pushed for Southern secession from the union.

After a single six-year term, Yulee was denied reelection to the Senate. He used his newly freed time to advance the cause of railroads in his state.

Taking advantage of new legislation to apply for both state and federal grants, he oversaw the purchase of land and the construction of a railroad from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic, using slave labor to cut a swathe across the state. Work began in 1855, and the line began running on March 1, 1861, mere weeks before the opening shots of the Civil War. Yulee also bought his own line of steamships to link up with the rail line.

In the meantime, Yulee was reelected to the Senate, taking office in March 1855 and resigning in January 1861, when Florida withdrew from the Union. Ironically, he had softened some of his radical stances regarding states’ rights in the intervening years, and pushed for a compromise between North and South until it became clear that secession was unavoidable. Then he again became a vociferous spokesman for the Confederate cause.

'Like the base Judean'

History has not dealt kindly with him regarding this zigzagging on such a cardinal issue, and nor did the press at the time. The New York Times, for example, suggested that Yulee’s final change of heart was a matter of personal interest rather than principle, writing that, “it is well known that it was because his Jew heart did not get all it craved that he urged the secession of Florida – and like the base Judean threw away a pearl richer than all his tribe.”

During the Civil War, Yulee tended to business rather than acceding to suggestions that he serve in the Confederate government or legislature. He took advantage of the opportunity provided by the conflict to wrest control of his railroads from Northern shareholders, but was less successful in convincing the Southern army to allocate troops to protect the actual rail lines.

First, Union troops tried to disable his lines, and later the Confederacy undertook to dismantle his tracks for the iron. Yulee fought tooth and nail against the latter expropriations in the Florida courts, which led to his being perceived widely as disloyal to the Southern cause.

Historian Robert N. Rosen, however, proposes exercising greater understanding for him.

“Preservation of the Florida Railroad Company and its rails was not just a matter of money to Yulee,” he writes in his book “The Jewish Confederates” (2000). “He had dedicated his adult life to bringing Florida into the modern world, first by bringing it into the Union, and then by joining Florida to the Union by rail.” 

After the war, Yulee was arrested by federal forces and was held for a number of months in Fort Pulaski, in Georgia. He was eventually released and returned home to Florida, where he tended to rebuilding both his plantation, destroyed during the war, and his damaged railroad. By 1870, he was able to host President Ulysses Grant at his home in Fernandina, Florida.

In 1880, having sold his railroad shares, Yulee and his wife moved to Washington, D.C., where she had family. Nancy Yulee died a short time later, but David survived until 1886. Visiting his grandchildren in Maine, he contracted a cold, and he died on October 10 in New York, after it had turned into pneumonia.

Both Levy County and the town of Yulee, Florida, are named for David Levy Yulee. 

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