A six and a half foot high bronze statue of Uriah P. Levy stands just steps away from Philadelphia’s Independence Mall just outside a historic synagogue where Levy first read Torah. Yet as Joshua Landes, who worked with his friend Gary Tabach to make the statue a reality, explained, for a while, the fate of Levy’s statue was uncertain.
“As a lover of America and a lover of the Jewish people and lover of my native Philadelphia, I feel that all the stars aligned for us to get prominent real estate right on Independence Mall,” Landes said.
At first, the friends wanted the statue placed at Penn’s Landing, where the Jewish naval hero had boarded his first ship. When unable to secure city land to display the statue, for a short time the 1,000 pound tribute was on display at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, before being removed and placed in storage.
Then, in a bit of good luck, a space opened up in front of historic Mikveh Israel. Levy’s statue now stands in the midst of one of the most historic blocks in American history.
“Great American people need to be permanently remembered by their people,” Tabach demanded. Rabbi Albert Gabbi, leader of the Mikveh Israel, agreed. “It’s a tribute not only to the congregation, but to the Jewish community and the whole nation,” he said.
The life and career of Uriah Levy is one of a stellar rise from cabin boy to Commodore in the United States Navy. Yet despite considerable hardship and anti-Semitism, Levy was never willing to give up either his convictions or his pride in his Jewish heritage. “My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors,” he said. “I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”
The Early Years
Uriah Levy was born on April 22, 1792 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to a well-established and large Jewish family. His maternal grandfather, Jonas Phillips, was a founding member of Mikveh Israel, one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, and an ardent supporter of America’s Independence of England.
As a young child, Levy, who idolized Phillips, thrived on the tales of his grandfather’s exploits as a soldier in the Revolutionary war as well as the saga of his grandfather’s famous act of espionage-penning letters in Yiddish to transmit sensitive information on the American army’s status in a language unknown to the British forces.
At age 10, Levy, perhaps inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, decided to strike out on his own adventure, running away from home to serve as a cabin boy on a number of ships. Two years later, he returned home, just in time for his bar mitzvah, and shortly thereafter found himself, this time with his family’s permission, apprenticed to a commercial fleet.
The Seafaring Man
When the War of 1812 broke out, Levy, now, 20, enlisted with the US Navy as a sailing master, a position Levy said, “furnished the best proof of love of my country.” His risky wartime post also landed him in jail. After sinking 20 ships while on a mission in the English Channel, Levy was captured and ended up in England’s Dartmoor Prison, where he remained for 16 months.
On his release, he was promoted to lieutenant in the Naval forces and stationed on the USS Franklin. In 1837, despite discrimination and being called a ‘damned Jew’ by many of his fellow, more genteel officers who refused to respect the former cabin boy, he was granted command of his own ship, the Vandalia.
It was while on the Vandalia that Levy is believed to have penned the anonymous tract, “Essay on Flogging in the Navy.” In the essay, Levy argued, “The American citizen shall not be scourged!”
Refusing to flog his own seaman about the Vandalia, Levy instead instituted a system of non-corporal discipline to handle manners of discipline aboard his ship. He also supported a congressional bill to have flogging banned.
Ironically, his failure to discipline his troops led to his own court martial for the “cruel and scandalous” methods he employed. On review, his conviction was overturned personally by President John Tyler, who reduced his sentence to one year suspension from his duties.
Trouble, though, never seemed far from Levy. During a tumultuous time from 1827-1857, he was court martialed a total of six times and faced disciplinary hearings one other time. Historian Michael Feldberg blames Levy’s sometimes difficult temperament for his repeated run-ins with naval authorities. “Though an excellent sailor, he was pugnacious,” Feldberg explains, “quick to anger, difficult to work with and sensitive about this Judaism.”
Testifying Against Anti-Semitism
At age 63, Levy and a number of other officers were unceremonious notified that he had been ‘stricken from the rolls’ of the US Navy. At a Congressional hearing on the firing of the men, Levy, who had garnered support of several naval officials as well as former Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, used his testimony to talk about the anti-Semitism he faced during his career.
“I was raised in the faith of my ancestors,” Levy testified to the committee. “In deciding to adhere to it, I have but exercised a right guaranteed by the Constitution… a right given to all men and their maker—a right more precious to us than life itself.”
The Congressional committee sided with Levy and reversed the decision, finding, in the words of Bancroft, that the cause of the firing was “because he was of the Jewish persuasion.”
The First Jewish Commodore
Four months after being reinstated, Levy was once again promoted and given the rank of Commodore, making him the first Jewish Naval Commodore in Jewish history. According to the Friends of the Jewish Chapel of the United States Navy Academy, which is named for Levy, he was very much aware of and proud of the trail he blazed for future generations.
“In addition to his love for America, Levy was equally proud of his Jewish heritage,” his group states on their website. “He firmly believed that he needed to lead the way for other Jewish-Americans who desired a life in the United States military.”
Monticello: A Tribute to Religious Liberty
After retiring on his own accord, Commodore Levy proved to be a shrewd businessman and speculator and amassed a small fortune. A letter from Marquis de Lafayette, though, would soon set him on his next patriotic adventure.
For some time, Levy had been working on the commissioning of a statue of Jefferson, which he wrote was intended, “as a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty.” Through Levy’s persuasion, the Marquis had lent a portrait of Jefferson, intended to be used to help craft his friend’s monument to be placed in Washington DC.
In a letter to Levy, the Marquis also inquired what had become of Jefferson’s beloved Monticello.
Levy, unsure of the estate’s fate, vowed to find out.
What he found was that the formerly grand home had fallen on hard times. After the death of Jefferson in 1826, his daughter had sold the property to help pay off debts. The new owners had allowed the property to run down, leaving the house nearly empty of its original contents and the surrounding fields badly overgrown.
Levy bought the property for $2700 and set upon the difficult task of its restoration as a moment to the man and his stance on religious freedom. Early tourists to the site, some of whom hacked of pieces of the home as souvenirs and created other nuisances, were often guided around by Commodore Levy himself, whose mother also lived on the property. The grave of Rachel Levy, who died in 1839, can still be seen at the site.
Yet, even at Monticello, Levy was not free from anti-Semitism. Harley Lewis, whose parents discovered an anti-Semitic plaque near the gate of the estate said, “There was a tremendous anti-Semitic feeling because a Jew owned the house.”
Susan Stein, a curator at Monticello since 1986, agreed. “There is a leitmotif, if you will, of anti-Semitism here, just as it is everywhere in the upper reaches of American society, she noted. “I see the attitude here being reflective in our culture.”
The Death of Uriah P. Levy
On March 26, 1862, Levy died in New York City. According to historian Marc Leepson, “he left a strange convoluted will that did not sit well with his family heirs, who challenged it in court.” Seventeen years of legal wrangling ensued, threatening to destroy the hard work he had put into Monticello, which ultimately was turned over to the government for public use.
Interred at Cyprus Hill Cemetery and buried with full military honors, Levy’s epitaph is a tribute to his service to the Navy and his fight to end flogging. “In memory of Uriah P. Levy, father of the law for the abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States,” the stone reads.
The statue in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall also bears testament to Levy’s trailblazing role in helping forge a place for Jews and other minorities in all aspects of American life.
“I think it’s important for all of us to remember that our Navy is comprised of a diverse body of sailors,” Rear Adm. Herman Shelanski, commander, Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 10 said at the statue’s dedication. “It wasn’t always easy for Jews and African Americans and other minority groups to be accepted, and so there were a lot of pioneers. Uriah Levy was one of those pioneers.”