Uriah Phillips Levy Biography
“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors… I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”
– Commodore Uriah P. Levy, USN
Uriah Phillips Levy was born in Philadelphia to a large, patriotic, Sephardic Jewish family, whose ancestors were among the first Jewish settlers in the colonies, arriving in 1645. At age 10, he ran away from home to serve as a cabin boy on the trading ship New Jerusalem, but as promised, returned to Philadelphia for his Bar Mitzvah. In 1807, Levy returned to the sea as a sailing master and part owner of the merchant ship George Washington. As a captain, Levy insisted that on his ships every Sunday religious services were to be held and no work be performed except that which was absolutely necessary.
During the War of 1812, while fighting the British, Levy’s ship was captured. He and his crew were taken captive, and sent to England’s notorious Dartmoor Prison. Levy was not released until the end of the war, 16 months later.
Although Levy had an extraordinary service record, he was court-martialed by the US Navy six times during his career. The last court-martial resulted after charges were brought against Levy for ordering a “peculiar” (non-corporal) type of punishment for a sailor aboard the USS Vandalia. Instead of flogging as a means of punishment, Levy used public humiliation to control unruly crewmen. The Navy favored the use of corporal punishment as a means of discipline and was determined to punish Levy for his failure to adhere to standard procedures.
In 1842, the naval court unanimously ruled that Levy be dismissed for his “cruel and scandalous” methods of punishment. However, when the verdict was forwarded to President John Tyler for review, the President lessened the sentence to one year’s suspension and personally criticized the court for the “extent of punishment” towards Levy.
In 1855, Levy was one of three captains eliminated from the ranks in an attempt to “promote the efficiency of the Navy.” Levy was certain that anti-Semitism was the root cause of this unfair dismissal and sought to overturn the order. Thirteen respected naval and government officials, including former Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, testified on Levy’s behalf. The testimony revealed that Levy was a victim of prejudice because he “did not enter the service as a Midshipman” and, in the words of Bancroft, “because he was of the Jewish persuasion.”
Levy was restored to active duty on December 24, 1857. Four months after his reinstatement, he was promoted to the Navy’s highest rank of Commodore and placed in charge of the entire Mediterranean fleet. In addition to his love for America, Levy was equally proud of his Jewish heritage. He firmly believed that he needed to lead the way for other Jewish-Americans who desired a life in the United States military. In addition to his many accomplishments as a naval officer, Levy led an equally successful life as a civilian. As an entrepreneur, Levy followed his religious traditions and provided substantial gifts of tzedakah (charity), becoming a great philanthropist.
In a gesture of patriotism, Uriah P. Levy spent a large portion of his fortune paying homage to his hero, Thomas Jefferson. Levy admired Jefferson for championing the cause of religious freedom for all Americans, so he purchased and restored Monticello, the late Jefferson’s home, and opened it to the public.
Monticello remained in the Levy family until 1923, when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation purchased the estate. A statue of Thomas Jefferson was also commissioned by Levy and donated to the United States government. It now stands in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Commodore Levy died on March 22, 1862, and received a traditional Jewish funeral with full military honors. He left behind many legacies: that year, Congress passed the law abolishing the use of corporal punishment in the U.S. Navy; the USS Levy, an escort destroyer, was commissioned and launched during World War II; and Monticello was restored to her former Jeffersonian glory. While Levy thought of himself as an American sailor, his strongest feelings were stated clearly for the Jewish people, particularly in this statement:
“They are unsurpassed by any other portion of our people in loyalty to the Constitution, and to the Union; by their support of our laws; by the cheerfulness with which they contribute to the public burthens; and by the liberal donations many of them have made to promote the general interests of education and charity.”