Uriah Philllps Levy

Riding back from Savannah this afternoon, I caught most of a public radio story on a local GPB station. The show was Studio 360 and it featured Thomas Jefferson and Monticello, one of a series on American Icons. There was quite a bit about Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings. That’s a story we all know well today. The best evidence suggests he fathered six children with his Sally Hemings, one of the 600 slaves he owned in his lifetime. Of course, this makes Jefferson’s opposition to ending slavery based primarily on his fear that the mixing of the races would dilute the quality of the genetic stock a bit disingenous. In terms of new information on this front, I learned that many of Jefferson’s white descendants continue to fight the vicious and unfounded “rumor” that their ancestor could have possibly behaved in this way. His moral and religious beliefs make such actions inconceivable, they argue. Hmm. Those beliefs didn’t make his owning 600 slaves impossible? Let’s move on.

Did anyone know that shortly after Jefferson died (in financial ruin, by the way), his estate sold Monticello to a fifth-generation American Jew, Uriah Phillips Levy, who ancestors landed in Savannah in 1733 to join the colony established by James Edward Oglethorpe that same year. Uriah Levy was the first Jewish commander of the United States Navy, the highest rank possible at the time. The Levy family owned and cared for the estate for 90 years. After the turn of the 19th century, there was a widespread, vitrolic, anti-semitic attempt to “take back” Monticello from this immigrant and alien family (recall, at this point the family was about eight or nine generations old). And again here, people associated with the “pure” Monticello story worked hard to keep this part of Monticello’s history buried.

There is much to admire about Thomas Jefferson. As the introduction to the Studio 360 piece suggests, he represents both our highest aspirations and our deepest contradictions.

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2 Responses to Uriah Philllps Levy

  1. Ginger says:

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for sharing such another remarkable wrinkle in the fascinating and peculiar life of Thomas Jefferson. Levy family clearly did our nation proud by taking care of the estate for so many decades and generations.

    Best,

    Ginger

    • William Aitken, OU '64 says:

      Larry, The Uriah Levy story is an interesting and importatnt part of TJ’s story and legacy. I would suggest, however, that you look more into the Sally Hemmings issue a little further. I disagree, the story is NOT “well known today”, and I would be more cautious about what you regard as what the “best evidence suggests”. This is still a scholarly area far from settled and comprised of many parts. To that end I suggest you take a look at “The Jefferson-Hemings Controversy: Report of the Scholars Commission” (R. F. Turner, Ed., Carolina Academic Press). I further commend to you Clay Jenkinson’s “The Thomas Jefferson Hour” and it’s web site. Clay is a Jefferson scholar and has a weekly PBS program (and podcasts thereof) where he takes on the role of TJ to answer/discuss in character moderated E-mailed, postal and phoned-in questions and issues relating to TJ and his times. I’m not sure WABE carries it but you can stream the programs from a selection of affiliate PBS stations at various times of day listed on the web site (ours is WHRO in Norfolk, 1 PM Tuesdays), if you have further interest along these lines. I think you would enjoy this treasure trove of information and sources on TJ.
      I anxiously await each of your MYSPW posts and enjoy them immensely. Thanks for sharing your considered thoughts.

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