Uriah Phillips Levy
Jefferson Monroe Levy was born in New York City in 1852, a sixth generation American. His father’s great-great grandfather, Dr. Samuel Nunez, arrived on these shores in 1733 and was a founder of the city of Savannah, Georgia. His great-grandfather, Jonas Phillips, was a Revolutionary War patriot who joined the Philadelphia militia at age 51 to fight the British and petitioned the Continental Congress for religious freedom for American Jews. His father, Jonas Levy, served in the Mexican War and his illustrious uncle, U.S. Navy Commodore Uriah Levy, was the first Jewish American to reach that rank.

Jefferson Levy, a lawyer by training, made a fortune in real estate and stock speculation. By the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the wealthiest men in America. A lifelong bachelor, he lived an affluent, flamboyant lifestyle. In 1879, he gained control of Monticello, which Uriah Levy had purchased in 1834 and which had been in legal limbo since the Commodore’s death in 1862. During that 17-year legal battle among Uriah Levy’s heirs, the house that Thomas Jefferson built almost came to ruin. When Jefferson Levy bought out the other heirs, he immediately set about repairing, renovating and restoring the house and grounds. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing so and is credited with saving the house from almost certain destruction.

In 1911, a national movement grew up led by the New York socialite Maud Littleton to take Monticello from Jefferson Levy and turn it into a government-run shrine to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson Levy had the singular misfortune in 1912 of having to defend his ownership of Monticello on the floor of the House of Representatives. A three-term member of Congress from New York City, he and his allies were able to fight off Mrs. Littleton’s effort to take the house from him that year.

However, Jefferson Levy bowed to public sentiment in 1914 and offered Monticello to the government. Although years of congressional hearings were held on the matter, Congress never took action. After he suffered severe financial losses during World War I, Jefferson Levy put Monticello on the market. He sold it to the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. He died the following year.

Today, the Foundation, which still owns Monticello, acknowledges Jefferson Levy’s “preservation efforts and stewardship” which “successfully maintained the property for future generations.”

The fascinating, and largely unknown, story of Uriah Levy and Jefferson Levy’s ownership of Monticello is at the heart of Marc Leepson’s new book: Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.

Engraving of Jefferson Levy

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