He would serve his country not only by putting his life at risk at sea, but by staring down antisemitism, working to end flogging, and saving Monticello from ruin. Levy would endure six courts-martial because of his faith, but he would also rise to commodore, the first Jewish officer to hold that rank.
Levy grew up in Philadelphia, where he was born on April 22, 1792. The biggest influence on his life was his maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, who had emigrated to the United States in 1756 from Germany, and fought with the Philadelphia militia in the American Revolution. Levy's great-great grandfather on his mother's side, Dr. Samuel Ribeiro Nunes, was among 42 Sephardic Jews who escaped the Spanish Inquisition. They relocated to England.
In America, the family flourished. When Levy's parents married in 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush attended.George Washington had attended the wedding of his mother's parents in 1762.
Inspired by the love of the sea of Grandfather Phillips, Levy ran away from home at age 10 and became a cabin boy aboard the trading ship, New Jerusalem. After two years at sea, Levy returned home and had a bar mitzvah. At 14, he returned to the sea again before entering a navigation school in London. A British press crew, which seized young men to work on British ships, took him into custody in 1811, even though he had papers that proved his American citizenship. They said he looked like a Jew, not an American, to which Levy replied: “I am an American and a Jew.”
Later, when the British commander of the ship tried to force him to take an oath, he replied: “Sir, I cannot take the oath. I am an American and cannot swear allegiance to your king. And I am a Hebrew and do not swear on your testament, or with my head uncovered.”
Swearing to the New Testament was a way to discriminate against Jewish people. Levy's grandfather was among those who petitioned the Constitutional Congress not to include it in the Constitution, and in fact they banned such a requirement for public office in ("no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States").
The British released Levy in Jamaica, but made him find his own way home. Later, aboard the George Washington which he partly owned, the crew mutinied and left him adrift. He caught up with them and had the leaders arrested. One man was later hanged and another sentenced to life imprisonment.
His service in the War of 1812 was exemplary and dangerous. The British captured him and the crew of the USS Argus; they rode the war out as prisoners ofwar.
However, he liked the Navy and stayed in after the war despite discrimination. One colleague advised him to leave even though nine out of 10 superior officers did not care about his religion, the one who did would make his life hell. Levy replied: “What will be the future of our Navy if others such as I refuse to serve because of the prejudices of a few? There will be other Hebrews, in times to come, of whom America will have need. By serving myself, I will help give them a chance to serve.”
These quotes are from his memoir. His life in the Navy was at times hellish. He faced six courts-martial, possibly a record for a man who would advance to commodore. His first one came in 1816, while he was assigned to the USS Franklin, when Lieutenant William Potter challenged him to a duel after harassing Levy over his religion. Levy accepted but informed him he would not fire back. Four times Potter shot. Four times Potter missed. Four times Levy fired harmlessly into the air. When Potter nicked him on the fifth shot, Levy shot and killed him. He was acquitted in a court-martial, and again in a civil criminal trial.
Shortly afterward, the Navy promoted him to lieutenant. Assigned to the USS United States, the captain rejected him twice because of his religion. Aboard this ship, he witnessed flogging for the first time and horrified, he began a 34-year campaign against it until in September 28, 1850, when Congress banned this form of punishment. Obviously, Levy was not alone in wanting to end this terrible practice. At the end of this cruise, the captain dismissed Levy from the Navy, only to have his order reversed by President Monroe. It was the first of four presidential interventions on his behalf, two by President Monroe. His family was as prominent as the actions against him were petty.
However, Levy also earned the respect of his fellow sailors despite his religion and his opposition to flogging. On a visit to Brazil in 1825, he witnessed the press gang's apprehension of an American sailor and rescued the boy, despite several blows and cuts. The next day, an apologetic emperor of Brazil visited the ship. After talking to Levy, the emperor was so impressed that he offered him a position in the Brazilian navy, to which Levy replied: “I would rather serve as a cabin boy in the United States Navy than hold the rank of Admiral in any other service in the world.”
But after a fifth court-martial in which he was publicly reprimanded, Levy took a leave of absence from the Navy. He had invested wisely and could afford a lengthy sabbatical.
Grandpa Phillips' hero was Thomas Jefferson, and it was no surprise that he became Levy's hero as well. In Paris in 1832, Levy sought out an aging Lafayette, a friend of Jefferson. During their interview, Lafayette suggested a statue be made of Jefferson by French sculptor Pierre Jean David d'Angers. Lafayette so trusted Uriah Levy that he loaned him a portrait of Jefferson by Thomas Sully to guide the sculptor. When completed, Levy donated the statue to Congress, which after a discussion over whether it could accept such a gift, placed it in the rotunda of the Capitol, the only statue there paid by a private donor.
But as they say in those terrible commercials on television, but wait, there's more. In 1834, Levy acquired a greatly deteriorated Monticello for $2,700. He spent many times that restoring the mansion, the conservatory, the garden and the grounds. While it has since been restored to a museum-level showpiece, Uriah Levy's initiative saved it and he donated Monticello to the United States government in his will, along with $300,000 to keep it going.
His naval career was sporadic for his last 30 years as quite frankly the Navy may have been a little overstaffed, and his position against flogging hurt his career as did his religion. In 1837, though, he was finally promoted to commander and given command of the Vandalia. He prohibited flogging, but using humiliation as a punishment led to a sixth court-martial. He was dismissed by the Navy but President Tyler not only reinstated him but had him promoted to captain.
Despite his promotions, experience and expertise, the Navy refused to give him assignments. In 1855, the Navy suddenly dismissed him and 200 other officers. Congress investigated in 1857, and ordered the Navy to reinstate Levy and 80 others. Four months later, he became the Navy's first Jewish commodore.
On March 22, 1862, he died, and 80 years later, the Navy named a ship in his honor during World War II. He was an exceptional American because he faced discrimination head on, because he saw the longer picture of other Jewish sailors joining later. Uriah Levy also saw the broader picture of antisemitism, a disease that seemingly honors no national border. However, its existence in America is mitigated by a vaccine called the Constitution. Not to belabor the point but the reason America and Canada are economic successes and the rest of the hemisphere is not stems from their British roots. Spain held its inquisitions; England took in its refugees.
My collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.