Saving Monticello

Monticello03By Robin Jaconbson. 

One of America’s most sacred spaces sits on a Virginia hilltop, roughly 125 miles from Bethesda. Millions have visited Monticello, beloved home of President Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Visitors wander through the rooms Jefferson designed, marvel at his ingenious inventions, and view the quarters where slaves lived and labored. Few appreciate, however, that Monticello survived into our time because of the stewardship of a Jewish naval captain, Uriah Phillips Levy, and his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, a New York congressman. Both Levy men made fortunes in real estate, which they devoted to maintaining Monticello for nearly a century. Read about the Levy family in Saving Monticello by Marc Leepson or The Levy Family at Monticello by Melvin Urofsky (both in our library). Here are some highlights.

Jefferson at Monticello

Jefferson began building Monticello (“little mountain” in Old Italian) in 1769 and continued redesigning and re-building it for 40 years. With no formal training in architecture, Jefferson drew inspiration from book illustrations of Italian country villas and later from the French manor houses and buildings he admired while serving as an American diplomat in Paris. Jefferson proudly called the blend of designs in Monticello his “essay in Architecture.”
Sadly, when Jefferson died in 1826, he was so deeply in debt – due to excessive spending, poor financial management, and bad luck – that his heirs saw no option but to auction off his possessions, including his slaves. Monticello itself languished on the market until 1831 when an apothecary named James Barclay purchased it, hoping to transform the property into a silkworm farm. When that farfetched plan failed, Barclay sold Monticello in 1834 to Uriah Levy, an ardent admirer of Jefferson.

The Levy Family at Monticello

Born in Philadelphia in 1792, Uriah Levy belonged to a prominent Jewish family. Always strong willed, Uriah ran off to sea at age 10, signing on as a cabin boy. According to family lore, Uriah told the ship’s captain that he needed to return home in two years to prepare for his bar mitzvah. Return he did, but when he was 14 (after the bar mitzvah!), he shipped out again. In time, Levy became a distinguished naval officer, remembered both for fighting anti-Semitism within the Navy and for spearheading a successful campaign to abolish flogging as a mode of naval discipline. The Jewish Center and Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy is named for him.

One of Uriah Levy’s heroes was Thomas Jefferson. Levy revered Jefferson as “one of the greatest men in history” because of Jefferson’s commitment to religious freedom, even for members of minority religions. In gratitude, Levy commissioned, in 1832, a statue of Jefferson by renowned French sculptor. Pierre-Jean David d’Angers. The statue stands today in the Capitol, the only statue there donated by a private citizen.

While in France, Levy met Jefferson’s dear friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. According to one story, Lafayette asked Levy what had happened to Monticello, and Levy promised to investigate. When Levy saw the dilapidated state of Jefferson’s cherished home, he purchased it and immediately began repairs.

In 1861, the Confederacy seized Monticello as the property of a northern enemy. Levy died the next year, but Monticello did not revert to his heirs until the war ended. Following years of litigation over Uriah Levy’s complex will, Uriah’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, gained ownership of Monticello in 1879. Congressman Levy shared his uncle’s commitment to Monticello and poured thousands of dollars into its restoration. In 1923, Jefferson Levy sold Monticello to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization, which has faithfully preserved Monticello ever since.