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How Jefferson’s Ideals Inspired the Levy Family to Preserve Monticello

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Spring 2002

Saving Monticello  
The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built  
By Marc Leepson  
Free Press, 303 pp. $25  

The Levy Family and Monticello: 1834-1923  
By Melvin I. Urofsky  
Thomas Jefferson Foundation, 256 pp. $26.95  


Although Monticello is one of America’s most celebrated landmarks, much of its history has been lost. Until recently. For almost ninety years the Levy family owned, maintained, and treasured Thomas Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece. Yet this part of its past has been largely forgotten.  

Uriah Levy repaired and restored the house. After his death in 1862 the Confederate government seized it. After this temporary seizure, it was disputed for seventeen years before it became the property of Uriah’s nephew, Jefferson Levy. The house had sunk into a state of disrepair and Jefferson Levy spent much time and money on the house, which clearly was close to his heart.  

The exciting story of how Monticello was twice saved by the Levys, and wrestled between the Levy family and a Congressman’s wife, who hoped to create a national shrine has been largely untold. Until the 1980s, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello, made hardly any mention of the Levys’ large role in the Virginia mansion’s history.  

Role of Levy Family  

Now two new books chronicle the role of the Levy family in unabashedly positive terms. The titles alone make their stance clear. Melvin Urofsky, a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, was commissioned by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to write “The Levy Family and Monticello 1834-1923: Saving Thomas Jefferson’s House.” Urofsky has done extensive archival research to insure that the Levy story and all of its legal intricacies will be preserved. Marc Leepson has written a widely reviewed book titled: “Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.”  

Monticello is a beautiful mansion, which Jefferson called his “essay in architecture.” It now receives over half a million visitors a year. Jefferson chose Monticello, which means “little mountain” in Italian, to be the seat of his estate in 1768. It took him more than forty years before he finished building and rebuilding. The house took its final shape around 1809. The marquis de Chastellux, a member of the French Academy and an officer in General Rochambeau’s army encamped at Williamsburg in the spring of 1782 commented on Monticello: “it resembles none of the others seen in this country; so that it may be said that Mr. Jefferson is the first American who has consulted the Fine Arts to know how he should shelter himself from the weather.”  

Jefferson accumulated large debts, and towards the end of his life, he was borrowing money just to make the interest payments on other loans. Urofsky writes: “Frequently a warm letter would be sent to him granting more time ‘to the Author of the Declaration of Independence.’ Their [his creditors] willingness to accommodate him made it possible for Jefferson to live out his years at his beloved Monticello.” Even so, the property was beginning to decline as Jefferson could no longer afford to properly maintain it. A visitor in 1824 noted that the “house is rather old and going to decay; appearances about his yard and hill are rather slovenly.”  

Jefferson's Debts  

When Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, he left more than $100,000 in debts. Although the family wanted to keep Monticello, they could not afford it. On November 1, 1831 the family sold the house and 552 acres for $4,500 to James Turner Barclay, a twenty-four year old druggist. Barclay only occupied the estate for a few years and signed a contract with Uriah Levy on April 1, 1834, though the sale did not take place for two years because of a dispute over the acreage.  

Urofsky writes in his introduction: “The story of the Levys and Monticello is a story of the blending of cultures and personalities, of Yankees and Virginians, of Jews and Christians, of city folk and rural people. It is the story of the power of a symbol, and how in America such symbols cut across lines of religion and class and ethnicity. And behind all of this is the towering presence of Thomas Jefferson.... Had it not been for the Levys, there would be no Monticello today, there would be no chance to pay homage to Jefferson, there would be no history lesson - for us or for our new brethren.”  

Uriah Levy became a prominent naval officer and amassed a fortune in his real estate dealings. Leepson offers this description of him: he “is best known for his fight for the abolition of flogging in the Navy, for his courageous service in the War of 1812, and for overcoming more than his share of anti-Semitism to attain the Navy’s highest rank. ... Levy also was quick to take offense, often acted on impulse, and had an exalted opinion of himself that he was not shy about expressing.”  

Naval Career  

Levy was born on April 22, 1792 in Philadelphia. At the age of ten he began his colorful naval career and ran away for two years to be a cabin boy. He returned to his family for his Bar Mitzvah but he was soon back at sea. He was court-martialed six times and killed a man in a duel. His biographers, who all wrote favorably of Levy chose the following titles for their books: “Navy Maverick,” “Pugnacious Commodore,” and “Intrepid Sailor.” He is remembered in the Navy as a hero. The Navy named a 1,240 ton destroyer escort after him, the USS Levy, which served in the Pacific from August 1943 until the end of World War II. The Commodore Levy Chapel at the Navy base in Norfolk was the first permanent Jewish Chapel built by the United States armed forces. The Naval Academy has recognized him by naming the Jewish Center and Chapel to be built in 2002 after him, as well as displaying a full-length portrait of the Commodore. Urofsky notes, “Had he never owned Monticello, the career of Uriah Phillips Levy would still be the stuff of heroic stories.”  

Levy was a great patriot. He fought in the War of 1812. At the time he was one of only five or six Jewish officers. Levy served on the Argus, a raider, which hunted and sank ships in the English and Bristol channels and along the British and Irish coasts. In May 1813 the Argus captured a British merchant ship, Betsy. Rather thank sink Betsy and its valuable cargo, Uriah and a small crew were charged with sailing it to France. He was captured aboard the unarmed ship in May 1813 and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner on parole in Ashburton, Devon.  

When Levy left active service in the navy he invested in real estate and made a great deal of money. He maintained a lavish lifestyle in New York City. Urofsky writes: “In the early 1830s Lieutenant Uriah Phillips Levy, like most of his fellow Jews and indeed most of the nation, saw Thomas Jefferson as the paladin of religious liberty.” Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was one of the proudest achievements of his life, and he asked that it be one of the three things listed on his tombstone.  

Virginia Statute  

The Statute reads: “We, the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, or shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” The Virginia Statute served as a model for similar laws in other states. Many Americans then and now credit him with being the father of religious freedom in America.  

A second cousin of Uriah Levy, Mordecai Manuel Noah, a well-known diplomat and journalist, was the recipient of a famous letter from Jefferson in which he expressed his views on religious freedom and Judaism. Mordecai Noah gave a speech in 1818 at Shearith Israel in New York. A copy of his speech made its way to Monticello. Jefferson wrote to Noah on May 28, 1818 saying he had read the speech “with pleasure and instruction, having learnt from it some valuable facts about Jewish history which I did not know before. Your sect by its sufferings has furnished a remarkable proof of the universal spirit of religious intolerance, inherent in every sect, disclaimed by all while feeble, and practiced by all while in power. Our laws have applied the only antidote to this vice, protecting our religious as they do our civil rights by putting all on an equal footing, but more remains to be done.” The letter was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in 1986 for $396,000, which at the time was the highest amount ever paid for any letter or presidential document.  

In November 1832 Levy wrote from Paris to his friend, the Philadelphia shipbuilder John Coulter “I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history - author of the Declaration of Independence and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or government life. As a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to personally commission a statue of Jefferson.” Levy commissioned the well-known French sculptor Pierre Jean David d’Angers to sculpt the statue.  

July 4 Banquet  

While in France to oversee the completion of the sculpture, Levy, along with much of the American community in Paris attended a banquet on July 4, 1833. At the event he exhibited his hot temper and patriotism. Levy described the dinner: “Among the regular toasts was one in honor of Washington - then followed ‘Andrew Jackson president of the U.S. like Washington firm and patriotic; like Washington happy in the union of men and principles.’ I proposed nine cheers; will it be believed this toast in an assemblage of Americans in a foreign land instead of being cheered, was received with groans and hisses! And though repeated attempts were made to drink this national toast, in modified form ‘Andrew Jackson, President of the U.S., nine cheers,’ the major part of the company persistently refused to drink it with cheers. Although the French national toast ‘The King of the French’ was drunk with three times three and one more. Regarding the chief magistrate of the Union as the Representative of my country’s sovereignty, I promptly resented this insult to her and to him; and on its first outbreak threw to one of the most prominent in the outrage (a glove merchant) my glove with an invitation to the Champs Elysees the next morning - an invitation not accepted. A similar proposal to another, drew from him, the next day, a written apology to me, which I have yet in my possession.”  

Newspapers in Paris, Philadelphia, and Washington reported on the incident. Another guest at the banquet later wrote that Levy had “resent[ed] the indignity in such a spirited and gallant manner. He was an honor to his country ... he denounced the insult to his government in the terms that it deserved.”  

Levy was pleased with David’s work and gave it to the federal government. The statue was placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol, though it was at the White House for a time after President James Polk moved it there. It still stands in National Statuary Hall in the Rotunda, and is the only statue given by a private citizen. It was the first monumental statue in the city honoring an individual.  

Admirer of Jefferson  

Levy had long been a great admirer of Jefferson, and the production of this statue heightened his interest. Urofsky reports that, while in France, Levy met with the Marquis de Lafayette, who had long been a friend of Jefferson and had visited Monticello twice. Lafayette inquired after Monticello, and Levy responded that he did not know, but he would find out when he returned to America. Urofsky writes that what Levy found on top of the mountain appalled him. “The house was deserted, the lawns a jungle, the flowerbeds that Jefferson had so carefully planned all gone to seed. Windows were broken, and shutters hung askew.” Levy found Barclay eager to sell, and on April 5, 1834 they struck a bargain in which Levy would receive the house and an indeterminate amount of acreage for $2,700. Urofsky writes: “Even more than the colossal statue in the Capitol, the saving of Monticello was indeed an act of homage to the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Religious Freedom.”  

Urofsky and Leepson provide the same account of the Lafayette story. However, Leepson tells a different story of the purchase. Leepson, writes that according to court documents, Levy had seen Barclay’s advertisement in the fall of 1833 either in the Richmond Compiler or in Atkinson ‘s Saturday Evening Post. In response to the ad Levy traveled to Monticello expecting an auction. Upon discovering that there was no auction, Levy sought out Barclay and made him an offer. Either way, it is safe to say that Levy had long been interested in Jefferson. The statue served to magnify this interest and helped lead him to Monticello.  

Levy was appalled by what he found at the Virginia estate. The main roof had fallen in; the terraces had collapsed; and the columns had deteriorated. Vandals and the weather further damaged the property. One visitor to the house wrote: “All is dilapidation and ruin.”  

Restored Monticello  

Levy spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring the physical appearance of Monticello. He hired Joel Wheeler, who, though he later would prove to be very damaging to Monticello, at the time he was a good caretaker. He also bought a number of slaves, and he probably owned about twenty when the Confederate government seized them in 1862. They would form work crews which cleared leaves and dead branches from the paths, cut the grass, and trimmed the bushes. Local craftsmen were brought in to repair the windows, stabilize the building and make other necessary repairs. Levy also expanded the acreage and made an effort to retrieve some Jefferson artifacts that had been sold at auction.  

Uriah never spent more than a few months a year at Monticello and historians have debated his motivations for owning the property. Levy admired Jefferson, and wrote several times about the need to preserve the houses of great men. Owning such a prominent house also elevated his own prestige and gave him a beautiful country house where he could spend the summers and entertain visitors.  

Monticello attracted a steady stream of pilgrims who wished to see the home of the third president. Although entertaining so many uninvited visitors was certainly tedious at times, the record shows that Uriah Levy was for the most part a gracious host to these pilgrims.  

Uriah’s admiration for Jefferson seems boundless. Leepson provides a story that illustrates this. In the winter of 1834-5 there is evidence that Levy, a 42 year old bachelor, was considering marrying one of Jefferson’s three unattached Randolph granddaughters, Cornelia, thirty-four; Mary, thirty-one; or Septimia, twenty-two. Virginia Randolph Trist, Jefferson’s granddaughter, wrote on January 2, 1835 to her husband: “Captain Levi is hear [sic] ‘raving for a wife.’ He has thrown out hints about becoming a ‘complete Jeffersonian’ and yesterday evening he spent with us and prevented my writing to you.”  

Levy and Jefferson’s Grand-daughters  

Virginia Trist elaborated in a February 3 letter to her husband: “Capt. Levi has been here. He has talked in a way to make [me] think that he wishes a grand-daughter of Mr. Jefferson to go and share the comforts of his charming home with him. Levy, she said, “also said to Cornelia that in France he was told that to make him a complete Jeffersonian he should marry a descendant of Thomas Jefferson.” Virginia said that Cornelia and her sister Mary “had no suspicions of mal-intentions towards” Levy’s motives. “I think the Captain is willing to leave it to be decided in a family council which of the three is to be Mrs. Levi. However he has only given very broad hints as to his designs and perhaps ... may change his mind.” Levy did change his mind, and if he had ever seriously considered a marriage to one of the Randolph women, it never materialized.  

Levy’s love for Monticello is indisputable. In a December 1, 1842, letter to his friend, the New York City lawyer David Coddington, he wrote: “Come and let it be very soon. The weather has been fine dry & bracing and not as you would have expected it to be.” Levy then talked delightedly about his country property after spending “the last six months in the good Democratic City of New York.” When he arrived at Monticello, Levy said, he “walked out to my favorite spot, a little elevated about the Lawn. Then I cast my Eye on fields. My Woods. My Hills. My Silver River, My Hounds. My servants. My friends and peaceful home, then there my heart swells with joy & only sighs for her alone.” He signed the letter “U.P. Levy of Monticello.”  

During his long naval career Levy was on leave for extended periods - at times it was his choice and at times he was not given an assignment. He spent most of the period from 1844-1857 in New York. According to two biographers, who Leepson cites, Levy “cut something of a swath in the social life” of the city. “In his early fifties, his hair and moustache were frosted almost clear through. Good food and excellent port had thickened his once-lean body and given him something of a paunch, but his carriage was as stiffly erect as ever, his eyes bright and alert. His civilian clothes were expensive, always in the height of fashion.” An “excellent dancer, he attended parties and balls and enjoyed the company of pretty women.”  

Abolition of Flogging  

During this period Levy embarked on a crusade that he was one of his proudest accomplishments. He wrote articles in New York, Philadelphia and Washington newspapers advocating the abolition of flogging in the Navy. He joined forces with the celebrated author Herman Melville, and succeeded in 1853 when the Navy banned flogging. He proudly claimed the mantle of “the father of the abolition of flogging,” though Urofsky points out that Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, the leading opponent of flogging in Congress, deserves at least as much credit.  

When he was sixty-one years old Levy married Virginia Lopez, the eighteen-year-old daughter of his sister Fanny. With this marriage he was following an obscure Jewish tradition that obligates the closest unmarried male relative of a recently orphaned or widowed woman to marry her.  

Levy was given one more command in the Mediterranean and he brought his young bride with him. While on this tour, a friend in Charlottesville sent him an account of the July 4, 1858 celebrations at Monticello, to which Levy responded: “I am rejoiced that Virginians more and more appreciate the nation’s birth day and honor the memory of the man who was among the first if not the first to call the nation into being, who guided its infant steps aright, and taught its infant tongue to lisp no other sentiment than those which were truly Republican. Let every year add to our love and veneration for Thomas Jefferson. There is no fear of his being made an idol. His life, his writings, his acts and example forbid that, but the most grateful emotions of our hearts can not inspire our lips to utter language which will more than express the just mode of praise we owe him. There is something appropriate in solemnizing the nation’s natal day at the tomb of Jefferson and although I was many miles from Monticello I was full of thought of what might be happening there.”  

Levy Meets with Lincoln  

When the Civil War broke out Levy went to Washington to see Abraham Lincoln, and reportedly offered not only his sword, but his entire fortune to the Union. He was deemed too old, but in a twist of irony, he was named to the court martial board, an ironic turn of events considering that he was court-martialed six times. He died on March 22, 1862 and had a Jewish funeral that was very patriotic. On his tombstone is inscribed an epitaph he chose: “In memory of Uriah P. Levy, Father of the Law for the abolition of the barbarous practices of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States.” He died childless leading to 17 years of legal wrangling during which Monticello fell into disrepair before Jefferson Levy took over and spent a small fortune to restore Monticello and its grounds.  

In the meantime Monticello was in Confederate territory. In 1861 the Confederate government seized Monticello under the sequestration terms of the Alien Enemies Act. Jonas Levy, Uriah’s brother asked for a “modification of the sequestration law” to allow him, as a resident of the Confederacy, to inherit Monticello. He was living in Wilmington, NC during the war and stated: “I am a loyal citizen of this Confederacy.” Jonas played a role in the Baltimore anti-Union riots of 1861 and was involved in a rebellious volunteer militia unit until Union forces took over Fort McHenry and the city waterfront. Yet, the Confederacy did not heed Jonas’ pleas and instead auctioned it off on November 17, 1864 to Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, who is credited with inventing the Pony Express. When the Civil War ended, Monticello was returned to Uriah Levy’s heirs who spent the next fourteen years in a lawsuit over the property.  

American Patriot  

Uriah Levy was undoubtedly a patriot. He fought in the War of 1812 and offered his services in the Civil War. He took offense at any insult to his nation, and was always eager to celebrate Independence Day and to honor the founders. This patriotism was evident even after his death as he left Monticello to the federal government in his will. Levy intended Monticello to be used for the establishment of an agricultural school for Navy warrant officers’ orphans. Washington declined the gift in part because the will was under litigation. Additionally, Vice president Hannibal Hamlin questioned: “whether it is sound policy for the government to assume the execution of purely charitable trusts, however laudable their purpose and ample the funds provided for them.” The U.S. government was inexperienced with prior donations, and was wary of the encumbrances they might cause.  

If Washington declined, the state of Virginia was to inherit the property. However, in the New York court in which the will was disputed, Judge William B. Wright stated that he considered the administration of the property as beyond the scope of the federal or state government’s role or responsibility: “There is a manifest unfitness in the government of the United States, or the State of Virginia, becoming the trustee or the administrator of a fund donated by an individual for the furtherance of an object in no way pertaining to the administration of these governments.”  

The state of Virginia filed suit for title of the property. However, Richmond lost interest when it learned the property was not endowed, and its upkeep would be a great financial burden to the Commonwealth.  

Division of Estate  

The division of Levy’s estate was problematic and continued to be disputed within the family. Urofsky goes into great detail about Levy’s will. It was a complicated document with many beneficiaries. The beneficiaries wanted the court to sort out what it meant. In the meantime, Monticello was left without a proper owner. Joel Wheeler, the custodian who had served Uriah well for a period, now let the place fall into neglect. No one saw fit to pay him and as a result he stopped taking good care of the house and began to use it as a method for personal profit - by charging groups to use it for balls and picnics and collecting admissions fees from visitors. He seemed to do nothing to keep up the house, while using parts of the mansion to stable his cattle and winnow his grain. Thomas Rhodes, who would later be Jefferson Levy’s superintendent, charged that “Monticello was wantonly desecrated.”  

The division of the estate dragged on, with several suits between family members. At one point in 1876 there were forty-nine parties to the dispute. The 25-year-old Jefferson Monroe Levy, son of Jonas, bought out the interests of other heirs and bid and won Monticello. How many heirs he bought out is unclear. One source suggests he bought out half. The house went on the public auction block on March 20, 1879. Jefferson Levy entered the high bid of $10,050 and won it.  

Levy had made this money in business dealings and real estate investments. He enjoyed a successful New York law practice, and made a fortune speculating both in stocks and in real estate. Family lore states that Jefferson Levy began investing in real estate at the age of 17. After Joel Wheeler, Monticello went through six overseers before he hired the twenty-six year old Thomas Rhodes in 1889. Rhodes turned out to be an excellent man for the job and over the next five decades he worked hard for the preservation and protection of Monticello.  

Modern Conveniences  

Levy filled the house with family mementos, works of art, and French antiques. He also introduced modern conveniences such as running water, toilets, and a coal­burning furnace. Jefferson Levy’s stewardship of the house is not without some controversy. Undeniably he made many repairs and refurbishments after the long period of neglect. His supporters argue that this was a sign of his adulation of Jefferson and his desire to preserve a historic property. James A. Beard, Monticello’s former curator, disagreed: “I don’t think he was doing any more than fixing his own house up - no more than you and I would do. He was not there but for a few months in the summer. I think he gets more credit for doing the restoration than he really did.”  

Leepson summarizes this part of the Monticello story nicely: “The fairest assessment is that Jefferson Levy, for whatever reasons, wound up making only minimal changes in the architecture. He may not have made as thorough a search for Jefferson’s artwork and furniture as he and his supporters claimed, but Levy did purchase several Jefferson items and he did make a conscious effort to replicate much of Jefferson’s French furniture and furnishings. Much more importantly, Jefferson Monroe Levy stepped in and spent a good deal of money repairing - and saving - Monticello. It is not overstating the case to say that the young entrepreneur used his fortune to save Jefferson’s mansion from ruin.”  

Jefferson Levy was elected to congress for three terms from New York. He exercised a great deal of influence in New York City and state democratic politics. “One of his proudest claims remained that he forced a reform of the surrogate practice in New York, a court that had long been the bastion of corruption and cronyism,” writes Urofsky. “Levy took the lead in codifying the election laws, which in the 1890s were cumbersome and confusing, and wrote - or caused to be written - a handbook for citizens explaining their rights as well as electoral practices.”  

Visitors to Monticello  

He lived well as his investments began to pay off. He went on frequent trips to Europe, and hosted many visitors at Monticello where he had a large staff of servants. The most famous visitor Jefferson Levy had at Monticello was President Theodore Roosevelt on July 17, 1903. He began to charge the uninvited pilgrims to control the flow and he donated the proceeds to Charlottesville charities. An admissions ticket, most likely from the early 1890s, stated: “Upon presentation to the person in charge of the Monticello Estate, this ticket will admit bearer to a view of the grounds but will not entitle holder to admission to the mansion or buildings. Visitors to the Graveyard will not be charged any fee whatsoever.” On the reverse side it said: “Visitors are requested not to mark or injure monuments, buildings or trees. The admission fee is distributed to Charity in Albemarle County, Virginia. The permission to visit the grounds may be revoked at any time and entrance fee returned.” However, Levy stopped charging admission in 1895 after complaints. For a time Levy required advance written notice from visitors. At times he may have needed to use these regulating mechanisms, but in sum Levy is remembered in both books as a welcoming host.  

Jefferson Levy raised an American flag ever morning and lowered it at night at Monticello. He hosted Independence Day celebrations where he would read the Declaration of Independence from Jefferson’s music stand on Monticello’s front steps. Jefferson Levy spent much more time at Monticello than Uriah had. He spent nearly every summer from the early 1880s until he sold the house in 1923.  

Proudly Jewish  

Like his uncle, though he was not an observant Jew, Jefferson Levy still proudly identified himself with the Jewish people. “He belonged to Shearith Israel, the old New York Sephardic congregation, and like Uriah, would be buried in Cyprus Hills Cemetary,” writes Urofsky. “He also joined with other well-to-do Jews to protest the rash of pogroms in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century and to provide aid for the victims... Levy neither flaunted his religion nor hid it; like his uncle, he admired Thomas Jefferson for making it possible for Jews in the United States to partake fully in civil affairs.”  

Jefferson Levy loved Monticello and used it as his second home. However, although the house had been in Levy possession for almost 70 years, by the end of the 19th Century, continued Levy ownership was not a sure thing. The populist leader William Jennings Bryan started the campaign suggesting that the house should be a national monument to Jefferson. On April 8, 1897, the New York Herald reported that Bryan had “begun an agitation to get the Government to buy Monticello, the house of Thomas Jefferson, for a national memorial.” The Herald reported on Levy’s response: “the gist of his answer was that not all the money in the United States Treasury would induce him to part with it.”  

This movement came at a time when the American public was growing an increased awareness of Jefferson. In the early twentieth century the number of visitors to Monticello greatly increased to 40-50,000 per year. The effort really began to gather strength when Maud Littleton, the wife of a Long Island Congressman visited Monticello and believed that it should be a national monument. She was very disappointed in her 1909 visit to the house. “Somehow it did not enter my mind that I was going to visit [Jefferson Levy],” Littleton recalled. “Thomas Jefferson was uppermost in my mind. I could think of no one else. Somehow I had never connected Mr. Levy with Mr. Jefferson and Monticello. He had not entered my dreams.”  

Public Battle  

Leepson focuses much of his book on the public battle between Littleton and Levy. Littleton rallied Jefferson admirers around the country and managed to gain the attention of a number of politicians to push her cause. She publicly attacked Levy’s care of the house and insisted that the property was bigger than any man who might happen to own it. Levy, for his part, showed no willingness to sell. In 1912 he said: “I will sell Monticello under no circumstances. I have repeatedly refused $1,500,000 for the property. My answer to any proposition seeking the property of Monticello is: ‘When the White House is for sale, then I will consider an offer for the sale of Monticello, and not before.”‘  

Once it became clear to Littleton that Levy would not turn over the property, she ratcheted up her rhetoric, and took advantage of the growing nativist sentiment in the country. She dredged up an old and untrue story that the Levys, being sly Jewish merchants, cheated the Jefferson heirs out of Monticello. Littleton referred to Levy as an “Oriental potentate,” and suggested that if he was a true patriot he would agree to sell Monticello. Fairfax Harrison, a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, wrote a strong indictment of Littleton in 1914, stating: “in aid of her campaign, [she] has not neglected any opportunity to create prejudice in her favor by reason of Mr. Levy’s ancestors.”  

To Sell Monticello  

In September 1914 William Jennings Bryan, then secretary of state, called on Levy to sell Monticello to the government: “I have never relinquished the hope that you would some day yield to the popular desire that the government should own Monticello, and keep it in memory of the author of the Declaration of Independence, whose residence and tomb there make the spot sacred.” Bryan made an allowance that Levy could occupy the home until his death. Levy realized that, with the administration taking a side, he had lost the battle, and resigned himself to selling, he asked a price of $500,000, claiming he had invested $1,000,000 into the property, and he was prepared to make half of it a gift to the government. This was a very high asking price considering the county assessed the property at $28,971.  

Congressmen squabbled over this price and never came to a conclusion over appropriations for the property. Then with World War I, the attention of Congress was diverted to international events. Meanwhile Levy lost much of his fortune during the war years and could no longer afford to keep up Monticello. By the 1920s he was eager to sell.  

The peak of government interest in Monticello had passed, and now the main groups expressing an interest were private memorial organizations. After a number of groups attempted to raise the necessary half million dollars, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation finally made a successful bid in December 1923 and has run Monticello ever since. Theodore Kuper, the national director of the Foundation from 1923-1935, described the completion of the sale: “The cash and the bonds and the mortgages were delivered to Levy, and Levy signed the deed conveying full title to the property and all belonging to the Foundation. This was a very emotional scene and he burst out crying. He said that he never dreamt he would ever part with the property.” Levy died of heart failure just three months later on March 6, 1924.  

Levy’s Role  

Urofsky summarizes the Jefferson Levy years well: “The story of Jefferson Levy and his ownership of Monticello for nearly a half century is complicated. On the one hand, everyone agrees that had he not put money and energy into restoring Monticello in the 1880s, the house would have deteriorated beyond repair, and today there would be no monument to Thomas Jefferson atop the little mountain. On the other hand, Levy made only a limited attempt to restore the interior of the house to Jeffersonian conditions. He saw it as his property, and as such had a right to furnish it and use it pretty much as he pleased. Given the primitive state of historic preservation at the time, we can hardly fault him for not living up to the standards of a later era. If he did not allow full and free access of everyone who wanted to enter the house or walk around the grounds, the record is clear that he gave permission to nearly everyone who applied.”  

The Foundation erased the imprint of the Levys on Monticello, wanting to celebrate Jefferson only. The grave of Rachel Phillips Levy was long ignored and allowed to become overgrown. There was no mention of the family who had spent ninety years at Monticello in the official tours. The Foundation viewed its role as preserving the memory of Jefferson, not the Levys, despite their long stewardship. At times, when inquiries were made about the Levys, they were greeted with anti-Semitic responses. There was a sign placed at Monticello that seemed to indicate that the Levys had made a great deal of money by purchasing Monticello $2500 and selling it for $500,000 - with no mention of the different values of 1836 dollars and 1923 dollars or the fact that the Levys sunk as much as one million dollars into the property. On June 7, 1985 this changed. With 60 Levy family members and friends present a plaque was placed at Rachel Phillips Levy grave, which states:  

“This is the grave of Rachel Phillips Levy (1769-1839), daughter of Jonas and Rebecca Machado Phillips of Philadelphia, and mother of Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN (1792-1862), who purchased Monticello in 1836. An ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson, commodore Levy believed that the houses of great men should be preserved as ‘monuments to their glory,’ and he bequeathed Monticello in his will to the ‘People of the United States.’ The government relinquished its claim to the estate, however, and litigation over the will deprived Monticello for seventeen years of an owner to take care of it. In 1879 Jefferson Monroe Levy (1852-1924), who shared his Uncle Uriah’s admiration for Jefferson, gained clear title to Monticello and began to make badly needed repairs. After adding considerable land from the original Monticello tract, he sold the house and 662 acres to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. At two critical periods in the history of Monticello, the preservation efforts and stewardship of Uriah P. and Jefferson M. Levy successfully maintained the property for future generations.”  

Appropriate Place in History  

The Levys are now given an appropriate place in history. They are not the reason half a million visitors come to Monticello every year, but without the Levy family, there would likely be no Monticello to visit. Urofsky writes: “What we needed was not to ignore or to glorify the Levys, but to give them credit - as well as blame - for what they did. Monticello may be envisioned as a monument to Thomas Jefferson, but its history is that of the Levys as well. That seems to be the position at which, after many years, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation has arrived, and it is one where both Jefferson admirers and Levy advocates can be comfortable.”  

Both are enjoyable, well-written and thoroughly researched books. They tell the story of a family that much of history seems to have forgotten. They are undeniably advocates of the Levy family’s role in preserving Monticello, but they back this assertion up with a wealth of primary and secondary sources. Urofsky goes into much greater detail about Monticello itself. He has done extensive legal research, which plays a prominent role in his book. Leepson, on the other hand, is more of a story teller, going into the personal history of many of the secondary characters. Leepson provides a very interesting story in which one learns not only about Uriah and Jefferson Levy and Monticello, but also about many of their forbears and the American society in which this story took place.  

With these two books, it is unlikely that the prominent role of the Levy family at Monticello will be forgotten.  

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