At the time of his death in 1826, Thomas Jefferson was near bankruptcy, and his family had to auction off his slaves, farm implements, and many of his household furnishings to pay down some of the debt. His beloved house, Monticello, proved harder to sell, and not until 1830 did the family find a buyer. The new owner, in turn, sold the house and some surrounding property only four years later, and then Monticello would remain in the custody of the Levy family for nearly 90 years, a period longer than Jefferson himself had owned it. Yet from 1923, when the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation purchased Monticello, until recently, the stewardship of the Levy family and their efforts to preserve Jefferson’s beloved home were largely ignored. Only in the last few years has the full story of the Levy family and Monticello come to light.
When he came of age, Thomas Jefferson inherited considerable property from his father in Albemarle County, Virginia, and he chose a site not far from Shadwell, his birthplace, as the seat of his own estate. He called it “Monticello,” Italian for “little mountain,” and between 1769, when he first began clearing the land for the house, and 1809, when Monticello reached its present design, he built and tinkered and constantly changed its features. As he told a friend, “Architecture is my delight, and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.”
Jefferson was more than a gifted tinkerer. He studied classical architecture, and in his five years in France representing the new nation he saw and was impressed by the new architecture underway both in Paris and in the French countryside and could hardly wait for his service to end so that he could begin his experiments in architecture. He hired craftsmen, drew plans—and then George Washington asked him to be secretary of state.
Between 1790, when he accepted Washington’s invitation, and 1809, when he passed on the burden of the presidency to his close friend James Madison, Jefferson devoted as much time as he could steal from his public responsibilities to the design and reconstruction of Monticello. The result, as all who have traveled there can attest, is one of the great and beautiful homes in America.
It is also an idiosyncratic house, one that could not have belonged to anyone but Thomas Jefferson. He designed it to meet his own needs, to test his own theories, to make himself comfortable. One does not go in there and say, “I could live here—all it needs is a little paint and paper to make it mine.” At Monticello one sees the inventions that Mr. Jefferson made for his convenience, his writing desk and the special seven-day clock that required some clever architectural tinkerings to make possible.
A few years ago in Greece my wife and I went to the island of Delos, in ancient times sacred to Apollo. I realized a few minutes into the tour that our guide, an attractive young woman, was not speaking of “god Apollo” in the past tense; for her, and for us as well that day, Delos was still the god’s home. In much the same way, the docents at Monticello and students at the nearby University of Virginia which he founded also talk about “Mr. Jefferson” in the present tense.
But while a nation remains grateful to Thomas Jefferson for his long years of public service, few recognize what an enormous sacrifice he made in the more than three decades that he held public office.
Prosperity returned fairly quickly to the former colonies following the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. While the owner of Monticello served his country abroad, his fellow planters in Virginia recouped their losses from the war and built up their fortunes. Like the good businessmen they were, they shifted their plantings, devoting less acreage to tobacco and more to grains and food-stuffs that could be exported to a Europe that suffered a series of devastatingly bad harvests.
While in Paris, Jefferson had to rely on a series of overseers who, whatever their other virtues, proved hesitant to act boldly in the market. When he returned to the United States and could devote at least some time to business affairs, Jefferson experimented with crop rotation, soil preservation, and other ideas of scientific farming, all of which no doubt proved helpful to Monticello’s soil but did little to bolster its owner’s bank accounts.
“A Virginia estate,” he wrote a few months before his death in 1826, “requires skill and attention. Skill I had nil, and attention I could not have. That was engrossed by more imperious calls, which after acceptance had a right of preference to all others. The wonder rather is that I should have been so long as 60 years in arriving at the ultimate unavoidable result.”
That “unavoidable result” was near-bankruptcy. Time and again Jefferson had to borrow money, and then sell off land to pay at least part of his growing debt. At the time of his death he owed more than $107,000, a very large amount that would be passed on to his posterity; the final sums would not be paid off until shortly before his grandson’s death many years later.
Jefferson had hoped that his family would be able to live on at Monticello, and in his latter years he enjoyed having his daughter, Martha Randolph, and her children living on the estate. He left the property to them, but the enormous debt load as well as the expenses of maintaining the building and lands proved too much.
Although there were several belated plans to try to save Monticello for the family, nothing came of them, and Mrs. Randolph put Monticello and its furnishings up for sale. Much of Jefferson’s furniture, plate, and farm equipment, as well as 140 slaves, were bought at a public auction in 1827, but that idiosyncratic mansion proved harder to sell. Finally, four years later, the house and property went to an eccentric Charlottesville druggist, James Barclay, for $7,500. Barclay despised Jefferson’s political ideals, and had very little interest in the great house itself. He wanted the land, and he tore out many of the trees Jefferson had planted as well as the extensive gardens so he could plant mulberry trees in a hare-brained scheme to turn Monticello into a silkworm farm.
Within three years the project predictably failed, and a visitor in the summer of 1832 wrote dejectedly to his daughter that “the late residence of Mr. Jefferson has lost all its interest, save what exists in memory, and that is the sacred deposit of his remains. All is dilapidation and ruin, and I fear the present owner, Dr. Barclay, is not able, if he were inclined, to restore it to its former condition.”
Barclay now looked around for a buyer. In 1834, he sold the house and surrounding land for $2,500 to Uriah Phillips Levy, United States Navy.
For a number of years books about Monticello sounded two themes, or to be more precise, one theme and a non-theme. The theme was first sounded by Paul Wilstach in 1925, when he wrote: “Monticello without its builder entered upon a full century of change, neglect, and degradation.” The theme was echoed by Thomas Fleming, an otherwise admirable historian, who charged that “Monticello. . .would moulder through a hundred years of abuse and decay.” William Thacker declared that in 1923 “the mansion had lain in a state of disrepair since the death of its builder in 1826.”
The non-theme is the ownership of Monticello from 1836 until 1923. One would not know that the Levy family owned and preserved the great house for nearly nine decades, a period far longer than Mr. Jefferson had owned it. One purpose of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in commissioning this study was to give the Levys full credit for their role in preserving Monticello. And we are primarily concerned with two Levys—Uriah and his nephew Jefferson.
There is no question that Uriah Phillips Levy is one of the great characters in American Jewish history. He was pugnacious, determined, eccentric, confirmed in the righteousness of his causes, an able businessman who was quite wealthy, and an admirer of Thomas Jefferson.
His admiration rested on Mr. Jefferson’s well-deserved reputation as a champion of religious liberty—not toleration, but liberty. “I consider Thomas Jefferson to be one of the greatest men in history,” Levy declared, “the author of the Declaration and an absolute democrat. He serves as an inspiration to millions of Americans. He did much to mould our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.”
One wonders if Levy would have been so ardent if he had known of the third president’s private assessment of the Jewish faith. Although Jefferson defended the right of Jews to believe and practice their faith unmolested by others, he strongly criticized Judaism itself. He considered Jewish ideas of God and his attributes “degrading & injurious,” and their ethics “often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality” and “repulsive & anti-social as respecting other nations.” The man who championed natural rights and freedom of worship wrote to Joseph B. Priestly that Jewish beliefs and morality “degraded” Jews, and of “the necessity they presented of a reformation.” To John Adams he wrote approvingly of the works of Johann Brucker, which denigrated Jewish philosophy and ethics, while to Ezra Stiles he declared that “I am not a Jew” and then misrepresented Jewish views on punishment.
But this aspect of Jefferson’s personality remained unknown to all but a few of his contemporaries, and would not become widely recognized until nearly a century after his death. In the early 1830’s Lieutenant Uriah Phillips Levy, like most of his fellow Jews and indeed most of the nation, saw Thomas Jefferson as the paladin of religious liberty, which in fact he was; they just did not see his dark side.
Levy’s admiration for Jefferson first expressed itself in a unique gift that the lieutenant made to the government and the people of the United States. As he wrote to his attorney, George Carr, “there is no statue to [Jefferson] in the Capitol in Washington. As a small payment for his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to commission a statue.” And the statue, in its way, led to Monticello.
There are three stories as to why and how Levy purchased the house. The first two are interesting, one for its implicit anti-Semitism and the other for its romantic nonsense. Both are totally unsubstantiated by any evidence whatsoever, except that after being told once, they wound up being repeated elsewhere.
According to the first account, after Martha Jefferson Randolph sold Monticello she went to live with her daughter in Boston. A group of patriotic Americans decided that at the very least Jefferson’s daughter ought to be able to live at Monticello, since Jefferson had given his life, in a way, for his country. They sent a representative to Boston to see if she would accept the gift, and upon her assent, he sped back to Virginia to consummate the purchase from Barclay. But he stopped in New York for a few days to raise funds, and at a dinner one evening met Lieutenant Levy and told him of his plan. The next morning the “crafty Jew” Levy sped south, purchased Monticello, and thus thwarted the noble and patriotic effort to return the family homestead to Jefferson’s beloved daughter.
The second unsubstantiated account has Levy in the White House meeting with President Andrew Jackson. Levy supposedly said to Jackson that he had heard about the sad state of Monticello, and had been thinking of buying it “in honor of Mr. Jefferson, whom I love.”
General Jackson replied with vigor, “I order you, sir, to buy it.”
“I always obey the orders of my superior, Mr. President,” Levy replied, and headed up the mountain.
The third account seems far more reliable, plus we have some corroborating evidence to support it. Levy had gone to France in 1832 to study advanced naval tactics, and while there arranged to meet a man who was undoubtedly a hero to many of Levy’s generation, the Marquis de Lafayette. He told Lafayette about his plan to have a statue made, and the nobleman, who had been a friend of Jefferson for nearly a half-century, lent Levy a portrait of Jefferson by Thomas Sully that he owned. The great French sculpturer Pierre Jean David d’Angers then executed a full-length likeness of Jefferson based on the portrait, and in March 1834, Levy presented the statue to the Congress. It still stands in the great rotunda of the Capitol, the only statue there provided for by private funds.
During Levy’s visit to La Grange, the aging marquis had enquired as to the well-being of Martha Randolph and of Monticello. Levy did not know, but he promised to find out as soon as he returned to America. After taking care of business matters—Levy was a very successful real estate speculator and owner in New York—he did go south and discovered Monticello to have been shabbily treated by Barclay, who was then eager to sell. In early April 1834, barely two weeks after presenting the statue to Congress, Levy and Barclay struck a bargain—the house and some acreage for $2700. Because Barclay had been selling off land it was not clear just how much property remained to go with the house, and it took a lawsuit to quiet title. In May 1836 the suit was settled and Levy received the house and 218 acres of land in a deed of conveyance. “My heart leaped,” Levy declared when he became the owner of Monticello.
For those of us who are used to seeing Monticello as it is today, restored to what our best knowledge tells us was Mr. Jefferson’s plan, it is hard to envision the great house as run-down. In fact, it was already looking that way in the last years of Jefferson’s life. He was so far in debt that he did not have the money needed to make the needed repairs or do the preventive maintenance that the house required. A visitor in 1824—two years before Jefferson’s death— reported that the mansion was “old and going to decay,” and that the gardens and lawns were “slovenly.”
Barclay did nothing to repair the damage. He had bought the property to indulge his hare-brained scheme, and he thought nothing of cutting down the beautiful poplar trees that Jefferson had so lovingly planted. He threw the bust of Voltaire by Houdin into a field, declaring that the French philosophe was an Antichrist. He planted vegetables next to the house, and kept his silkworms in the conservatory. Despite his widow’s recollection years later that they had taken good care of the house, contemporary reports belie that contention. What Uriah Levy bought was a house beautiful in design, with a strong foundation, but one that badly needed repairs.
On this work he gladly embarked, and from all reports did so successfully. He assembled a small army of workers—including more than a dozen slaves that he purchased—and put them to work cleaning out the interior of the house, making needed repairs on the outside, and restoring the landscaped gardens and lawns. There are conflicting accounts as to whether he actually managed to buy some of Jefferson’s original furnishings that had been sold at auction after his death. But he did go to great lengths to restore the house to its former glory. He put in working order the seven-day clock that had been made to Jefferson’s specifications in 1793, and also restored the body of a two-wheel carriage that tradition, if not fact, claims to be the one Jefferson rode to Philadelphia in 1775 for the Continental Congress.
As a serving naval officer, as well as a businessman with extensive holdings in New York, Levy lived at Monticello sporadically. But he did bring his mother to preside over the house, and when Rachel Phillips Levy died, her son buried her on the mountain top not far from the house. Levy also hired Joel Wheeler as an overseer, and although Wheeler would later do great damage to Monticello, from all reports he initially and for a number of years shared his employer’s passion for restoring the house and did much to keep it and the grounds in good shape.
Then in 1853 the 61-year-old bachelor took a bride, his beautiful 18-year-old niece. [This is a long story, and it scandalized some of the local people who did not like Levy to begin with, although it is not clear whether they disliked him for being a Jew, a Yankee, or at least in one instance, both! In addition, apparently the marriage laws of Virginia prohibited a union of such close blood.]
Virginia Lopez later recalled all the fun they had at Monticello, and how Uriah would dress in workman’s clothes while he puttered around the grounds, pretending that the owner was not there when visitors came to call. But it must have been hard for the vivacious young woman to live up there all alone, and she took every opportunity to accompany her husband on his trips, including one voyage on a navy ship that he commanded.
One thing is certain. A third of a century after Thomas Jefferson’s death, the house he built was in far better condition than it had been in 1826. And then the war came.
Upon news of the firing on Fort Sumter, Uriah Levy reportedly went to Washington and met with President Lincoln. He offered his entire fortune for the Union cause, as well as his sword. Although Levy had great experience at sea, he was almost 70 years old. Lincoln knew of Levy’s troubles with the naval establishment, but he also had a sense of humor. So instead of sending Levy to sea, the president made him chair of the naval review board, the same panel that had on more than one occasion been the forum for his court-martials.
Levy died in 1862, and is buried in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn in the cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Over his grave is a tall marker with the epitaph: “In memory of Uriah P. Levy, Father of the Law for the abolition of the barbarous practices of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States.” [Here too there is some controversy, but it seems fair to say that if Levy did not originate the drive to abolish flogging, it was an idea whose time had come and of which he was a leading champion.]
In his will drawn in 1858, Levy bequeathed a dower’s share to his wife, various gifts and mourning rings to friends and family, and then left Monticello to the government of the United States, along with the income from his considerable estate—valued at over $300,000— for the support of an agricultural farm there for the orphaned sons of seamen and others. Should the government decline, it was then to be offered to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then to the three Sephardic synagogues of Philadelphia, New York, and Newport.
Extensive legal gyrations occurred over the next 15 years. The grieving widow, abetted by much of Levy’s family, challenged the will, and after a suit that went all the way up to New York State’s highest court, prevailed. While the suit was in litigation, Congress declined the gift—after all, aside from not knowing what to do with it, Monticello was firmly behind enemy lines.
The Confederacy, in fact, confiscated Monticello as enemy property and put it up for auction in 1864. A Benjamin F. Ficklin bid $80,500—all in Confederate money, of course. After the war the Levy family had no problem regaining ownership, but it was unclear to one and all who in the family actually owned what. At one point there was a partition suit that resulted in 47 beneficiaries of varying degree. Eventually, after a number of law suits in Virginia courts one owner emerged. But first, we must turn to the house itself, because when the dust had settled, the new owner must have wondered if his prize had been worth all the effort.
Joel Wheeler, the able overseer who worked for Commodore Levy, had stayed on, growing older and more senile and cantankerous with the years. The Levy family did not pay him, so he started charging visitors, and didn’t care if they took part of the house away with them as a souvenir. A young woman who visited Monticello in the summer of 1864 reported that “The place was once very pretty, but it has gone to ruin now. . . . The parlour retains but little of its former elegance, the ball room is on the second floor, and has a thousand names scratched over the walls. There are some roses in the yard that have turned wild, and those are the only flowers.”
Wheeler allowed his pigs to ramble all over the estate, and moved his cattle inside in the winter. The steps of the beautiful west portico disintegrated, making a convenient dirt ramp for the cows to walk on. Loose shutters banged in the wind on broken windows, and bins of grain were installed on the magnificent parquet floors. Wheeler rebuffed every effort by George Carr, who served as the Levy family lawyer, to remove him, and as he grew more senile declared to one and all that he was the true owner of Monticello.
The hero of this drama is Jefferson Monroe Levy. He was only ten years old when his uncle died in 1862, and as late as 1875, when his father Jonas was still attempting to sell Monticello in order to liquidate Uriah’s estate and divide the proceeds, there is no mention of Jefferson Levy in the extensive correspondence between Jonas and George Carr, who acted as the family’s agent and lawyer in Charlottesville. But on March 20th, 1879, when Carr supervised the sale of Monticello at public auction, Jefferson Levy entered the winning bid of $10,500. Because of an ongoing lawsuit, however, he was not confirmed in his title until May 1, 1882.
Levy was born in 1852 and died in 1924; he never married, and during his residence at Monticello first his mother and then his sister served as hostess. He was wealthy—very wealthy—and was one of the leading real estate developers and speculators in New York City. He was rich enough to have needed and to have installed a ticker tape in his bedroom so he could follow the money market while at home.
In 1916 The New York Times had a picture identifying him as one of Tammany Hall’s “Big Four,” and he served several terms as a congressman from the city. From an examination of speeches that he had printed as well as his votes on various measures, we can surely label him as conservative.
While not an observant Jew, he did seem to take his Jewish identity seriously and as a responsibility. When the Russian pogroms broke out in the first decade of the 20th century, Jefferson Levy was one of those who formed the protest group that eventually led to the creation of the American Jewish Committee.
Why did he want Monticello? There is, unfortunately, very little in the record on this. Although there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of articles about Monticello during the time of his ownership, in none of them have I found any quotation as to why he stepped forth to seize full title to his uncle’s house. The one time Levy did speak to this issue was in an address to the New York chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution [one should keep in mind that the male Levys belonged to this organization by right, as did the women to the DAR; this is a family that can trace its roots back well before the Revolution.
He did not say very much about his own views, other than that he felt proud to have carried out what he believed to have been the real intent of his uncle’s will, to make Monticello a monument to Jefferson’s memory. From bits and pieces of other talks, one can assume, I believe, that like his uncle Levy idealized Thomas Jefferson as the great paragon of the American Republic.
By the time Levy gained full control of Monticello, it was but a pale shadow of what it had been 20 years earlier in 1858, when Uriah had written his will. Where Uriah had bought surrounding property to build up the estate, Jefferson could only gain title to about the same holding that Barclay had passed on, the house and 218 acres. The house was in terrible shape, and the grounds had been untended for years.
A full description of the restoration of Monticello is beyond our purview, so let me sum up what he did. He bought up an additional 500 acres surrounding the estate which, while not restoring it to either the size at the time of Jefferson or even of his uncle, still gave Monticello greater breathing space.
After several years of intense effort, he finally managed to dislodge Joel Wheeler, and to secure as overseer a man who was as devoted to the restoration of Monticello as he was, Thomas L. Rhodes. The combination of Rhodes’s engineering and architectural ability, and Levy’s financial resources, gradually brought Monticello back to life. Windows were repaired, the house repainted, internal and external renovations took place, and the grounds replanted according to Mr. Jefferson’s original plans.
Levy was of two minds, however, as to how to decorate the house. On the one hand he apparently attempted to purchase Jeffersonian artifacts whenever possible. Levy maintained an agent in Europe for the purpose of purchasing furniture and works of art, although these seemed to have been divided between Jeffersonian period pieces and that of the late Victorian era.
For unlike his uncle, Jefferson Levy did spend at least four months of every year up on the little mountain. It was his summer home, and in it he honored his uncle as much as he honored Mr. Jefferson. A full-length portrait of the commodore hung in the front hall, while nearby stood a model of the ship Vandalia, which under Uriah Levy’s command had been the first ship in the Navy to abolish flogging.
Jefferson’s entertainment rooms, according to William Adams, a contemporary critic, “took on the over-stuffed appearance of a Parisian banker’s country house during Napoleon III’s Second Empire. Elaborate imported chandeliers, mirrors, sideboards, and a spectacularly bedizened bed à la Madame du Barry decorated the hall, parlor, dining room, and Jefferson’s bedroom.” First his mother and then his sister, Mrs. Von Mayhoff, served as hostess, and we have some charming accounts by the children in the family of life in the great house.
Levy also kept up some customs from Jefferson’s time. Originally the road up to the house was so narrow that only one carriage could pass at a time, so that whenever anyone went up or down the road, a servant would ring a great gong as a warning. Jefferson Levy built a back road so that people could go down in safety, but nonetheless kept up the custom of having the gatekeeper bang the gong whenever a visitor arrived. And, as he proudly told a congressional committee, he still burned candles at Monticello as had the house’s original builder.
Although only a part-time resident, Levy took an active role in the life of nearby Charlottesville. In 1880 he restored the Town Hall, which had been built in 1852 as a theater, and renamed it the Levy Opera House. The structure is still standing.
Every Fourth of July he would hold an open house for the residents of the community, and after he read the Declaration of Independence there would be fireworks and refreshments. He allowed many groups use of the estate for events, and also was quite generous in allowing an almost unbroken stream of visitors to come up the mountain to pay homage to Mr. Jefferson. By 1900, some accounts report that as many as 60 people a day would show up at Monticello. [That is almost 22,000 a year.] By then, he and Rhodes had completed the bulk of their work, and Monticello was in better shape than it had been since 1809. If anyone deserves the title of “savior of Monticello,” it must surely be Jefferson Monroe Levy.
Jefferson Levy lived at Monticello for many years, but as early as 1897 signs appeared that others wanted Mr. Jefferson’s home, if not for themselves, then as a national shrine to honor the third president. Problems had begun in the 1870’s, almost as soon as Levy had taken clear title. The stone obelisk that Jefferson had prescribed for his tombstone had been chipped away by souvenir hunters. A resolution by S.S.Cox, a New York Democrat, authorized the government to acquire the gravesite and to build a new monument over Jefferson’s grave. But the resolution quickly ran aground. The graveyard had never been part of the Monticello property, but from the time of its sale to Barclay had been reserved for the Jefferson family, and the heirs, now numbering nearly 50, had no intention of relinquishing it to the national government. Nor did Levy intend to cede property rights of way to the graveyard. [He never, it should be noted, imposed any barriers on the family visiting the graveyard or making an occasional burial there.] In 1882 Congress deferred to the objections, and voted money to erect a new obelisk over Jefferson’s grave and put a fence around the burial yard.
In the 1890’s Thomas Jefferson enjoyed a renascence in public popularity. Part of this can certainly be attributable to the revival of the Democratic Party that he had helped to found from its tribulations during the Civil War era. Part is also attributable to the nation’s new-found fascination with its Founding Fathers. As the editor of The Chicago Tribune wrote, “It somehow happens that now and then a man lives who seems to have in his head every important idea that all his countrymen together get in theirs for a century after he is dead.” The public was treated to a whole potpourri of articles and books on Jefferson and his ideas, and the stream of visitors to Monticello swelled into a broad river. By the first decade of the 20th century the number of visitors to Monticello reached nearly 50,000 annually.
In 1897, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic candidate for president wrote to Levy suggesting that he convey Monticello to the government for a public memorial. Levy replied that all the money in the United States Treasury would not buy Monticello.
At this point, only two historic homesites in America were open to the public as museum memorials—George Washington’s house at Mount Vernon and Orchard House, the Alcott home outside Boston. There was no historic preservation movement, and the Rockefeller interest in what would become Colonial Williamsburg was still three decades away.
Enter Maud Littleton, an attractive and far from retiring Southern belle. Originally from Texas and now married to Congressman Martin Littleton of Brooklyn, she first visited Monticello in 1899, fulfilling what she claimed had been a childhood dream. She wrote an article for Munsey’s Magazine praising Jefferson Levy for his stewardship of the house. But ten years later she changed her story, and claimed that instead of being overwhelmed with the house, or even grateful that the owner of private property had let her tramp around his home, she had been devastated by the neglect and poor custodianship of its owner.
“I did not get the feeling of being in the house Thomas Jefferson built and loved and made sacred, and of paying tribute to him. . . . My heart sunk.” But not for long. Maud Littleton now had a mission in life—to wrest Monticello away from Jefferson Levy and make it a public memorial to her childhood idol.
She began petitioning Congress to buy the estate. She went back and dug up the all-but-forgotten will of Uriah Levy, in which he had tried to give Monticello to the nation. Under the pen name of Peggy O’Neal, she issued an attractive brochure entitled One Wish, in which she sketched out a melancholy history of Jefferson’s home and called into play every patriotic emotion in the book. Even that hard-hearted Louisville newspaper publisher, “Marse Henry” Watterson, was moved. “I read it with my heart in my throat and tears in my eyes.” The flinty senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, admitted that he did not share Jefferson’s political views, but admired the Virginian’s love of art and architecture, and for that reason enlisted in the cause as well.
Congress held a number of hearings over the next several years, most of them deteriorating into verbal duels between Levy and Madame Littleton. His answer in the first set of hearings in 1912 was “When the White House is for sale, then I will consider an offer for Monticello.”
If one reads the hearings one gets a sense of one-sidedness. An attractive Mrs. Littleton claimed that all she wanted was for Congress to save Monticello and make it into a shrine to one of the country’s neglected heroes. She accused Levy of standing in the way of the American people, of being selfish, of not caring for anything except his own comfort. She accused him of being a poor caretaker of the estate, who guarded it like an “Oriental potentate” refusing admission to those who would worship at the site. He had replaced Jefferson’s portraits and mementos with his own, and had “commercialized” Monticello.
Levy was at a disadvantage. In 1912, before the era of effective mass communication, he did not have a venue from which he could effectively make his case. Besides that, the customs of the times prevented him from going after Mrs. Littleton and calling her a liar. The best he could do was object to the slanders, and point out that he had poured large amounts of money into preserving Monticello, that visitors were always welcome, that the house was very well maintained, and that he had kept Monticello not out of the “selfish and sordid purposes” that Mrs. Littleton ascribed to him, but by an “unceasing flow of the fountain of a heart filled with love for Thomas Jefferson.”
Fortunately for Levy, a number of newspaper editors objected very strongly to Mrs. Littleton’s crusade on two grounds. One was the general view of private property rights, and the notion that government ought not to interfere with those rights. Monticello was Levy’s home; he had bought and paid for it, maintained it, owned it, and he had as much right as any man to be secure in his own home. The other was the delicious fact that Mr. Jefferson himself would have objected to the government spending the people’s money on such a project. President Jefferson had been a skinflint with the public purse, with the exception of the purchase of Louisiana.
Had not Woodrow Wilson been elected in 1912, Levy probably would have kept Monticello; in fact he did keep it for another 11 years. But the handwriting was on the wall. The “Lady of Monticello,” as the Hearst papers approvingly called her, intensified her campaign. William Jennings Bryan, now secretary of state, eagerly signed on, and so did the Virginia-born occupant of the White House. In March 1914 the Virginia legislature endorsed the plan to have Congress buy Monticello and make it a national monument.
The Senate Lands Committee reported a resolution to establish a joint congressional committee to investigate the feasibility of acquiring Monticello by purchase or—a word that Levy had fearfully anticipated—condemnation. He could always refuse to sell, but if Congress chose to exercise its power of eminent domain, he would be forced to give it up at whatever Congress deemed a fair price.
So Levy agreed to sell Monticello for $500,000, which he claimed was half its real value, and would make the other half-million a donation to the government. He liked, or at least said he did, Bryan’s suggestion that the house could serve as a summer home for presidents, an idea, by the way, that Wilson never endorsed.
One wonders why the deal was not consummated, since Maud Littleton had drummed up an enormous amount of public interest and support, a Democratic president who had been able to get Congress to pass such controversial measures as tariff reform and the Federal Reserve Act had endorsed the proposal and on several occasions made his support known to key congressional leaders, and the asking price was well within reason. Even as late as 1915 it looked like the deal would go through, but it didn’t.
Congressional committees squabbled over details, the Daughters of the American Revolution decided that they should be the ones to manage the property, and then the First World War came and all other matters faded into the background. Levy’s personal fortunes sank in the post-war depression, and now he wanted to sell the house both to get the purchase price as well as to rid himself of the burden of maintaining it. In 1921 newspapers in the Washington area carried advertisements for “a dignified country home” overlooking Charlottesville.
In 1923 the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation executed a mortgage with Jefferson Levy purchasing the estate for $100,000 in cash and a note for $400,000. For the past three-quarters of a century the Foundation has operated Monticello. Through extensive research it has restored the house and furnished it largely with Jefferson’s belongings. In 1950 the house underwent a much-needed half-million dollar structural restoration, and since then it has been conscientiously maintained. More than 500,000 people visit Monticello each year. They learn from the obelisk marking his grave of his contributions as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the “father” of the University of Virginia. Visitors today also learn of the vital role played by the Levy family in preserving this great house.
But this was not always the case. Within a few years after the Foundation took over Monticello, the Levys vanished from the little mountain. Rachel Levy’s grave was ignored, and tour guides made no mention of what happened to Monticello between Jefferson’s death and the purchase by the Foundation nearly a century later.
In the 1950’s Malcolm Stern and other Jewish scholars began to press the leadership of the Foundation to include material on the Levys. The initial answer was that Monticello was a shrine to Jefferson, not to anyone else. Stern and the others particularly objected to a sign that noted that Barclay had sold Monticello to Uriah Levy for $2500, and that the Foundation had purchased it from Jefferson Levy for a half million dollars.
Although the sign was taken down and a little material was added to the revised edition of the official guidebook in 1967, the situation did not change significantly until 1985, when Daniel P. Jordan was named as the new head of the Foundation.
Saul Viener, a gifted amateur historian and former president of the American Jewish Historical Society, informed Jordan of the efforts he and Malcolm Stern had made in trying to resurrect the Levy story. Jordan agreed that a true history of Monticello required that all aspects, not just those directly relating to Thomas Jefferson, had to be told. The following year he oversaw the restoration of the gravesite of Rachel Phillips Levy; at an impressive rededication ceremony, members of the Levy family as well as Jewish communal leaders saw the placing of a new plaque noting the role of the Levys in saving Monticello. About three years ago the Foundation commissioned a full-length monograph on the role of the Levy family in preserving Monticello, and Ambassador John L. Loeb graciously agreed to underwrite it, so that finally Monticello could acknowledge the debt it owes to Uriah and Jefferson Levy. That work is complete, and the story of the Levys is now part of the Monticello story, as it should be.
In his magisterial biography of Jefferson, Dumas Malone speaks at length about Monticello and the great joy and love that it was in Mr. Jefferson’s life, and in a beautifully poetic conceit, imagines that on quiet summer nights Jefferson’s ghost comes to walk on his beloved grounds. I would like to think that on some of those nights, Uriah Levy and his nephew also walk atop the little mountain, swapping stories with Mr. Jefferson about the house they loved and shared and partaking together in the joy of Monticello.