The Jews who saved Jefferson's home

Thanks to Uriah Levy - celebrated as the founder of America's preservation movement - Monticello is now open to tourists.

Monticello 311 (photo credit: Paul Ross)
Monticello 311
(photo credit: Paul Ross)
I’ve never met an American who didn’t have a soft spot in his heart for Thomas Jefferson, and who didn’t love Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Of course the property was also a plantation, which tells you that the third US president (1801-1809) was a slave owner, and DNA evidence has ascertained that he fathered at least one and probably several children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Starting in Jefferson’s lifetime, there were a lot of winks, nods and written accusations made about the Tom and Sally affair, but we’ll never know exactly what went on between the man who penned the Declaration of Independence and his slave, who was partially white and may have been the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife.
After Jefferson retired from the presidency, he went to live full-time in Monticello, and the house is a testament to his architectural genius; in fact, he called it “his essay in architecture.” The 1,000-square-meter neoclassical mansion has 21 rooms, and from the moment you walk past the stone columns and set foot in the reception and waiting room, with its grass-green floor and museum-like exhibits of natural history specimens, Native American and African artifacts, you know you are in the domain of a man of taste, knowledge, broad interests and probably unlimited resources.
Alas, even presidential resources can run out. Unlike today’s politicians, the first men who helmed the fledgling United States often left office penniless and in debt. Jefferson was no exception. By the time he died, he was in the hole some $100,000 ($2 million today), and it took decades for his heirs to pay off the debt. During his lifetime, Jefferson entertained lavishly, often hosting dozens of guests for weeks at a time – Monticello includes 12 guest rooms, one of which is called the “Madison Room” because President James and First Lady Dolley Madison stayed there – and there was no presidential pension at the time.
His heirs could not afford to keep Monticello and, to the shock and sadness of everyone who adored and admired the book room (which held more than 6,000 volumes), bedroom (where his bed was surrounded by the latest gadgets and technological inventions), dining room (with its dumbwaiters, hidden in the fireplace, that brought wine up from the cellar), guest rooms, art collection and dome room, the plantation had to be sold.
Historical treasure or not, no one wanted it. In 1827, Jefferson’s daughter and grandson auctioned off his slaves and other possessions – right down to stored grain and farm equipment. The empty house decayed from lack of upkeep. Finally the estate was purchased by James Taylor Barclay for $7,000, but he only held onto it for three years. And this is where our story begins.
A hint about the estate’s next owner is still at Monticello, on Mulberry Row, next to slave and work cabins, prodigious vegetable gardens and mulberry trees. There, a rather nondescript tomb is the final resting place of Rachel Levy, mother of Monticello’s third owner, Uriah P. Levy. The plantation remained in the Levy (pronounced “levee”) family for 89 years. In fact, it is postulated that Uriah Levy was a founder of America’s historic preservation movement because, at that time and well into the 20th century, there was no great interest in maintaining historical homes and sites.
Levy was a very colorful and controversial character. Not only an ardent Jefferson admirer, he was also the first Jewish American to make a career as a US naval officer. Larger than life, he was a hero in the War of 1812, defended Jewish rights, campaigned against flogging in the navy, killed a man in a duel, was court-martialed six times and, at 61, took a teenage wife who proudly Levy was the descendant of a crypto-Jewish doctor in Portugal who was saved by the grand inquisitor because he needed him to treat a bladder infection. When Levy’s parents got married, it was probably the first Jewish wedding in America, and it’s believed that George Washington attended.
Today, in the waiting room of Monticello, which once held 28 chairs to accommodate the president’s visitors, tour guides point out an ingenious seven-day clock, which Jefferson designed. It still functions and is driven by two large cannon ball-like weights, which hang on both sides of the front door. The clock governed the time schedule in the house and plantation; it was attached to a Chinese gong, which could be heard by slaves more than five kilometers away. It is thanks to Levy that the clock and other possessions and designs of Thomas Jefferson can be seen by tourists. If he hadn’t spent a huge amount on the restoration and upkeep of Monticello, it would have sunk into dilapidation.
Levy’s personal relationship with the plantation was not without its difficulties. It took years of wrangling to finalize the terms of ownership. Once he took possession, the house and grounds were beset by hoards of unknown visitors who trampled the gardens and even chipped off pieces of Jefferson’s burial monument. Anti-Semitism also entered the fray when Levy was accused of buying the presidential home for personal gain and derided for being an alien in America.
When he died, childless, his odd and obscure will was contested by his family for 17 years, as the house decayed. Finally, in 1879, his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy (the name certainly suggests family patriotism) gained title. He was a handsome and fabulously wealthy New York lawyer, realestate mogul, stock speculator and threeterm US congressman. He never married, and indicated on several occasions that he dedicated his life and fortune to the upkeep, restoration and refurbishing (in true Jeffersonian style) of Monticello.
But his uncle’s difficulties with Monticello unfortunately presaged some of his own. J.M. Levy opened Monticello to vast numbers of tourists, claimed to live by Jeffersonian principles, lavishly entertained luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt, foreign ambassadors and US congressmen, but was still attacked for being a latter-day Shylock and exploiting Jefferson’s memory. There was a movement to wrest ownership from him and hand it to the government. Levy defended his right to keep the estate and insisted it would never be turned over to anyone else – including the government.
By 1911, the opposition to Levy’s private ownership of Monticello had reached a fever pitch. His main opponent was Maud Littleton, a New York socialite. Her attacks were relentless, hostile and anti-Semitic. The invective came during a time when there was a huge influx of Jews into America and anti-immigrant sentiment was strong. Even though the Levy family had been in American for five generations, they were still considered interlopers, outsiders and certainly not American enough to own the house that Jefferson built.
Levy, who had lived the high life for so long, was beset by financial difficulties and, after holding out as long as he could, finally agreed to sell Monticello to the government for $500,000. Although many considered the asking price exorbitant, Levy insisted it was half of what he had spent on the estate. For years, the proposal for the government to purchase Monticello was tossed around from committee to committee. Finally, the asking price was met by a private group – the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Reportedly, Levy burst into tears when he signed over the deed to his beloved estate. He died insolvent before his 72nd birthday.
Tour guides at Monticello today mention the Levy family only in passing because they have insufficient time to relate the dramatic events that took place during almost nine decades of Levy ownership.
When you go, pause for a moment at Rachel Levy’s tomb. If you have the inclination, thank Uriah and Jefferson Levy for preserving what is now one of the most beloved tourist destinations in America.
Stop at the Monticello gift shop and buy Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built, by Marc Leepson. It’s a fast-paced but detailed and fascinating read.
Monticello is now a stop on the new Journey Through Hallowed Ground – a 290-km. trail through American history, national parks, wineries, museums, battlefields and nine presidential homes. www.Hallowed-