“Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built”
by Marc Leepson
320 pp., Free Press
Reviewed by Dr. Geraldine Nussbaum
Historian and Jewish Educator
Marc Leepson has been a freelance writer since 1986. He has contributed to magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias, and taught American history at Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia, not far from Monticello.
“Saving Monticello,” is a study of Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, VA, and of Jewish American history as it related to Monticello, posthumously.
In 1832, an American naval lieutenant commissioned a prominent sculptor in Paris, Pierre D’anger, to make a statue of Jefferson that was to be gifted to Congress, and the people. Bronze, and 7 1/2 feet tall, it shows him holding a pen in his right hand, with the Declaration of Independence in his left. Leepson tells us the lieutenant was Uriah Phillips Levy, who often referred to Thomas Jefferson as “one of the greatest men in history.” Levy was a Jew whose family revered the president because of his insistence that religious freedom become a cornerstone of American life.
The “gift” was not accepted, initially. Leepson suggests the opposition may have been partially based on Levy’s Judaism. Although we learn Jefferson deemed religious freedom to be among the inalienable rights of all people, not all Americans agreed.
In 1834, Uriah P. Levy bought Monticello. How curious that an unknown fellow, and a Jew at that, should suddenly step onto the pages of history, and intersect boldly with the third president of the United States. It turns out the Levy’s came to America in 1733 because of religious persecution in Europe, to a land where they would be free to worship without reprisal. And, they prospered.
The privilege to live without fear was never forgotten by the succeeding Levy generations. While Uriah was in the navy — where he remained all his life — he killed a man in a duel for uttering anti-Semitic remarks. According to Leepson. Uriah may not have been a religious Jew, but he was a proud one — as was the rest of the family. He was also fair and just man who campaigned successfully for the cessation flogging in the navy.
When Thomas Jefferson died on the nation’s 50th birthday — July 4, 1826 — he left an estate with more than $100,000 in debts. During his retirement years he was not able to maintain Monticello. Upon his death, Jefferson’s heirs had no choice but to sell thousands of acres, furniture, art, and books. In 1831, they put the estate up for auction but there were no takers.
Finally, Dr. James Barclay (a local Virginian), bought it, thinking he would be able to raise silkworms there, but he failed. Monticello fell further into ruin. Saving Monticello, then, became the story of how one Jewish family rescued the house that became theirs for 89 years — longer than it was Jefferson’s. With a laser focus, Leepson tells in great detail — how Jefferson’s home came to the brink of ruin, and how it was rescued — twice — by two generations of the Levy family: first by Uriah Levy and then, by his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy.
When Uriah bought Monticello in 1834 for $2,200.00, he started to rebuild and restore it. During the Civil War, the South seized it until after the war. When he died in 1862, the house was re-conveyed with the same acreage — 218. Uriah stipulated in his will that the entire property be given to the people of the United States, but the government declined to accept it, just as they had rebuffed the gift of the Jefferson sculpture. Sixty-four Levy relatives initiated multi-year lawsuits for the property, and over the next 17 years, Monticello deteriorated.
At one time, animals were permitted inside, and University of Virginia students had wild parties there. The next owner, Jefferson Monroe Levy, a nephew to Uriah, resolved all of the 64 lawsuits and emerged as the new owner in 1879. J. M. Levy was a bachelor, a wealthy real estate and stock speculator who spent much of his time in New York, but who came to the estate during summers and special holidays.
Slowly, he started buying land in Charlottesville, too. He increased Monticello to 662 acres, and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in repairs. Within a year of his purchase many close friends and family were able to join him for extended stays. An article in the June 27, 1880, Washington Post reported that Levy was restoring the interior of the house to the original specifications. Levy advertised he would reimburse persons the amount they had paid the Jefferson family for the president’s furniture, art, and books.
Besides the antiques, paintings, and some of his family mementos, Levy added modern conveniences to the house: running water, toilets, a coal-burning furnace, and a new roof.
By 1900 Jefferson Levy was one of the richest men in New York and a first-term member of Congress. Parties and events were held at Monticello to raise money for Charlottesville charities; when he was at the estate, Levy also guided visitors around the site. He hoped all Americans would continue to visit, “for I am sure it cannot but help to insure our people with a love for our republican government.”
Sadly, Jefferson Levy’s reward was to eventually face a vicious, national campaign with anti-Semitic innuendos to seize Monticello, and give it to the people. These efforts came to naught, but in 1923, when Levy suffered huge financial reversals, he sold the property to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation for $500,000, with all of the furnishings. The director, Fiske Kimball, chose to erase all traces of the Levy family’s 89 years of ownership; he got rid of every piece of the furniture.
Today, the story of the Levy family stewardship is inscribed on a plaque that was laid near the grave of Rachel Levy, Uriah’s mother, who is buried at Monticello. It took from 1923 until 1985 for such a plaque to be placed, and for the Levy name to be recognized.
Members of the family were invited to the ceremony. It made mention that Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy had been an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson who believed the houses of great men should be preserved as monuments to their glory. It also speaks of Jefferson Monroe Levy’s purchase of the house and his conscientious stewardship.
Since 1985, the Visitors Center has contained a permanent exhibit called “Monticello After Jefferson.” There, the full story is told about the Levy family through their photos. It is said the Levy’s are once again at home — at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
All quotes and citations are from Saving Monticello.
Dr. Geraldine Nussbaum is a historian and Jewish educator.