On April 13, 1909, Maud Littleton, wife of a well known New York attorney and politician, fulfilled a life-long desire to visit Monticello. Despite a "kind and hospitable" reception by the house's then-owner Jefferson Monroe Levy, Littleton was not impressed and shortly after launched a years-long public campaign first to purchase and then to wrest Monticello from Levy, whose family had owned and preserved the property for nearly 80 years. For both Levy and Littleton, Monticello was a shrine to its original owner and national hero, Thomas Jefferson. For both it was a place worth fighting for "to the last ditch."
In this episode of our In the Course of Human Events podcast, journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker, Steven Pressman -- with help from author Marc Leepson and Susan Stein, Monticello's Richard Gilder Senior Curator, Special Projects -- describes the battles that took place in Congress and across the nation in a time before national parks or the widespread appearance of privately operated historic sites.
Steven Pressman: Thomas Jefferson, according to Mrs. Littleton, seemed to have been brushed to one side and to be fading into a dim tradition. "Somebody else was taking his place at Monticello," she said, "an outsider, a rank outsider."
Susan Stein: Hi, I'm Susan Stein. I'm the Richard Gilder Senior Curator of special projects at Monticello.
Marc Leepson: I'm Marc Leepson. I'm a journalist, historian, and the author of nine books, including Saving Monticello, which focuses on the Levy family and this amazing story of how they repaired, restored, and preserved Monticello.
Susan Stein: Welcome to the Monticello podcast "In the Course of Human Events."
My Dream was Spoiled
Steven Pressman: Hi, I'm Steven Pressman. I'm the writer, producer and director of a documentary film called The Levys of Monticello.
On the afternoon of April 13th, 1909, it was Thomas Jefferson's birthday. A woman named Maude Littleton made the trip up the mountain to Monticello. In doing so, Mrs. Littleton was fulfilling a dream she had had since she was a young girl growing up in Texas: stepping across the threshold of the home that had once been inhabited by one of her great American heroes. Mrs. Littleton had been in Charlottesville earlier that day, along with her husband, a guy named Martin Wiley Littleton. He was a prominent attorney from Long Island, New York. Mr. Littleton had been invited to deliver the annual Founders Day speech at the University of Virginia, and Mrs. Littleton was especially thrilled to have been invited to dinner that evening by Monticello's current owner, Jefferson Monroe Levy.
But Mrs. Littleton's excitement quickly disappeared, despite the warm welcome extended by Levy to her and her husband. "I did not get the feeling of being in the house Thomas Jefferson built and loved and made sacred," Mrs. Littleton recalled later. "I did not seem to feel his spirit hovering around those portals. My dream was spoiled."
Susan Stein: Visitors have been coming to Monticello since Jefferson's time. He was inundated with people who wanted to catch a glimpse of him as well as see this historic monument. But what happens in the late 19th century is that the appreciation of the founding of the nation turns to reverence. And Maude Littleton kind of lands on that.
But what she did was call out Jefferson Monroe Levy's Jewishness, and she did that in a coded way that would've been completely visible to people in her own era. The use of that word "sacred" is charged because it indicates a connection to God and religion and, in a sense, to Christianity. So she's connoting that Jefferson Monroe Levy is different.
Steven Pressman: As I learned during the course of making my film, The Levys of Monticello, a home is always so much more than the dream and the realization of one man only. In the case of Monticello, to be sure, this magnificent architectural masterpiece originally emerged from Jefferson's imaginative vision. And yet in the years that followed Jefferson's death on July 4th, 1826, his home fell into near ruin, not just once, but on two different occasions. And in each case, it was carefully repaired and restored by the Levy family.
Uriah Levy and his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, were members of one of the most distinguished Jewish families in America, with a lineage that dates back prior to the Revolutionary War and with roots deeply embedded in American patriotism and service.
Uriah spent 50 years in the American Navy, eventually becoming its first Jewish commodore. He profoundly admired Jefferson for his views on religious liberty. And Uriah Levy purchased Monticello in 1834, eight years after Jefferson died. By then, the house was already in serious need of repair, due primarily to Jefferson's mounting financial difficulties during the final years of his life.
Marc Leepson: When Thomas Jefferson died, he was over $107,000 in debt, and the family just didn't know what to do. The family who inherited was his daughter, Martha, and his favorite grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, known as Jeff Randolph. They were land rich and cash poor, and they just didn't have a clue of how to pay back this enormous debt. So after he died, they auctioned all of Jefferson's property, or nearly all of it.
Susan Stein: We need to credit Uriah with the first significant step in the historic preservation movement in America. It's Uriah who, with his acquisition of Monticello, he's the first one to preserve a historic home of a U.S. President.
Marc Leepson: Uriah Levy's Naval exploits are well recognized. If you read Navy history, you'll read about Uriah Levy. He was a hero of the War of 1812. He was Assistant Sailing Master on a ship called the Argos, and the Argos's job was to capture British ships in the channel, and they were very successful at it. They captured like 24 British merchant ships, and then when they went to capture the 25th, they got into a sea battle. The captain was killed. The crew was held prisoner, including Uriah Levy. They were released at the end of the war, and Levy went on to have this 50 year career in the U.S. Navy. There was a destroyer escort named after him in World War II, the USS Uriah P. Levy. Uriah Levy is also known for being instrumental in abolishing flogging—actual physical flogging was part of Naval procedure and Uriah helped lead a campaign in having that policy abolished.
Of course, he faced severe antisemitism in the U.S. Navy. Some of it was overt, some of it was covert. Once a junior officer at a dance in Philadelphia called him a damn Jew, and Levy slapped him in the face with his glove, which meant that he challenged him to a duel. And so they got in row boats and they went over across the river to Camden, New Jersey, and they paced it off. The man fired first and missed. Uriah Levy took out his pistol and fired into the ground on purpose, and the man reloaded and fired and missed, and then Levy shot him in the heart and killed him. He was arrested, not by the Navy, but in a civilian court, and found not guilty.
He was a fiery individual. He was physically strong, he had a temper, and he was actually court martialed six times. Twice he was kicked out of the Navy and reinstated by two different presidents. And virtually all of those charges were trumped up charges where somebody, again, would call him a damn Jew or whatever it was and he'd punch him in the face. He was the one who was penalized and he surmounted all of those courts martial and went on to have this illustrious career that he's well praised for.
I want to mention one other example of Uriah Levy's admiration for Jefferson and his stand on religious freedom, the statue.
Susan Stein: Well, the statue is amazing. He goes to France and he commissions one of the leading sculptors of the day, a man named David D'Angers, and he gives the sculpture to the nation. So it is Uriah Phillips Levy who commissions the first public sculpture, the first monument, of Jefferson.
Marc Leepson: Today, that statue sits in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
Susan Stein: Another aspect that we haven't talked about is that one of the things that Marc discovered in his research was that Uriah Phillips Levy was also a slaveholder. So in as much as he is to be lauded for his dedication to the notion of religious liberty, he, at the same time, was blind to the rights of enslaved people.
Jefferson Monroe Levy
Steven Pressman: Uriah Levy died in 1862 during the Civil War, and the task of further restoration of Monticello would fall to his nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, who ended up becoming Monticello's new owner in 1879, following several years of devastating neglect in the aftermath of the Civil War.
Jefferson Monroe Levy was named after not one but two presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. And he just loves being the owner of Monticello. He's always inviting people up. He hosted two presidents, Grover Cleveland and then Theodore Roosevelt. He's hosting lunches and dinners. He's inviting bridge groups and the Daughters of the American Revolution. And he allowed tens of thousands of visitors to stroll around the mountain top each year. There are also times where he's just sort of puttering around the grounds, and people would have no idea who this guy was. And sometimes he would just start telling fanciful stories about Monticello. He had a sister who overheard him one day and she said, "Why are you telling these stories? You know they're not true." And Jefferson Monroe Levy had a twinkle in his eye, and he told his sister, "People have come from miles around to look at Monticello. What's wrong with giving them a little bit of a story, even if it's not exactly the truth?" That's the kind of guy Jefferson Monroe Levy was. He just loved Thomas Jefferson, he loved Monticello, and he just loved being up there on the mountaintop.
He also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair the house and the surrounding grounds. A national magazine praised Levy: "Too much credit cannot be given Mr. Levy for his intelligent care of the home and grounds. It is his policy and his pride to keep the old house, the green terraces, the wide lawns, and the ancient trees as they were in the hands of their first owner."
Susan Stein: Jefferson Monroe Levy was part of an economic and social scene in New York. He was a prosperous investor. He was a friend of JP Morgan.
Marc Leepson: And he was a three-term member of Congress. He was a conservative Democrat from Manhattan. He was an extremely successful real estate and stock speculator, to the point that by the 1880s, he was a millionaire when there were maybe a thousand millionaires in the entire country. And then he did have this rich social life. He was always traveling off to Europe. I like to call him, you know, an early 20th century jet setter. He hung out with royalty and tycoons of business and made headlines with some of his business deals. He once bought the biggest diamond from a South African diamond mine.
Neither Uriah Levy nor Jefferson Levy lived at Monticello full time. But Jefferson Levy came to Monticello regularly. He tried to make it a point to come every 4th of July and have an Independence Day celebration up there that included fireworks, music. They would invite the staff at Monticello and guests from Charlottesville to come up on the mountaintop, have a picnic. We have some evidence that Jefferson Levy would come out at the end of the evening and read the Declaration of Independence from Thomas Jefferson's music stand.
Susan Stein: One of the things that he should be most respected for is the very few changes that he imposed upon Monticello. Monticello's survival today, intact, is much due to the respect that Uriah and Jefferson Monroe Levy gave to the house. They did not add copious additions, they were not destructive of the original fabric, and that's something that preservationists really respect.
Maude Littleton's Campaign
Steven Pressman: The story of the Levy family and its ownership of Monticello also dovetails with the long history of antisemitism in the United States.
Within a few years of Mrs. Littleton's first visit to Monticello in 1909, she embarked on a national campaign to take Monticello away from Levy, with the aim of turning the place into a national shrine to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson Levy was a Congressman during the time that Maude Littleton was waging her campaign to strip him from owning Monticello. She had a bill introduced in the House of Representatives, where Jefferson Levy was serving as a Congressman, to take Monticello away from him. She was a wealthy woman who had plenty of resources to devote to her cause, and by this time, her husband, Martin Littleton, was also serving in Congress alongside Levy.
When Maude Littleton referred dismissively to Jefferson Monroe Levy as a "rank outsider," she was tapping into a familiar antisemitic trope that regarded Jews, along with others, as somehow being less than pure Americans. This, despite the fact that Levy himself was a sixth generation American. This is now the early years of the 20th century, when antisemitism, which had always been found throughout American history, was rising as a real force to be reckoned with. A lot of that antisemitism was fueled by the massive waves of European immigration, not just Jews, but Italians and Greeks and others, all of whom were seen as outsiders and somehow a threat to the American character.
Marc Leepson: The most egregious example of the antisemitic nature of the campaign to take Monticello from Jefferson Levy was this newspaper article that was published by one of Mrs. Littleton's acolytes in which she made up a story about how Uriah Levy was on a coach coming from New York to Charlottesville, and happened to be sitting next to a man who was going to buy Monticello and give it back to the Jefferson family. So supposedly, Levy finds out about it, he gets the guy drunk on the coach, and swoops in and buys Monticello out from under this white Anglo-Saxon Protestant man. Even worse, the dialogue in the magazine article had Uriah Levy speaking in this kind of Shylock-like, Yiddish-type accent.
A bill was introduced into the House of Representatives in 1912 that would've turned Monticello into a government-run house museum. Well, there were a series of hearings on Capitol Hill starting in the summer of 1912, when they debated it. These were bombastic hearings. Jefferson Levy, not a shy and retiring man, he said on the record, when the White House is for sale, then I'll sell Monticello.
Susan Stein: It's stunning for us to look back on the hatred embedded in that article, but I think we also have to remember that it is the Jim Crow era, when there is widespread, accepted, normal discrimination against Blacks and Jews. This is typical thinking of that era.
But the same elements that that Maude Littleton spoke to in the 20th century have always existed in American society, and that is the desire for a homogeneous white European Protestant majority. I think that it's very difficult for some people to acknowledge the valid rights of others, of Blacks and Jews and Asians, and anyone who doesn't fit the mold. As much as we would like those elements of bias to disappear, they have not. They're still with us, and it's as much a part of our legacy as our idealism.
Steven Pressman: Mrs. Littleton, despite her relentless campaign, ultimately failed in her efforts to force Levy to give up ownership of Monticello. It's interesting that there were members of Thomas Jefferson's family itself, who did not agree with what Mrs. Littleton was trying to do. "My dear Mr. Levy," Frank Randolph, Thomas Jefferson's great-great-grandson wrote, in a letter in December 1912, "I am so sorry to be so dilatory in expressing to you my sympathy and my abhorrence of the unjust fight Mrs. Littleton is waging to seize your home. I am sure that all my family, to whom you have always been so courteous and kind in offering the hospitality of Monticello, feel the same way."
Fortunately, the Levy family never ceased to be generous and caring stewards of Monticello. In fact, it turns out that the Levys owned Monticello longer than even Thomas Jefferson and his descendants. Jefferson Monroe Levy finally agreed to sell Monticello to the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923. And for the next 60 years or so, the Levys were essentially erased from the history of Monticello. This, despite the fact that Uriah Levy's mother Rachel had died there in 1839 and is buried in a small plot along Mulberry Row.
All these years later, the long history of Monticello is now more fully told. Visitors today learn about the role that the enslaved community played, both in building the house and maintaining Monticello as a working plantation during the years that Jefferson lived there. Visitors are also now able to discover that the fate of Jefferson's cherished mountaintop jewel might have taken a very different turn were it not for the long-standing dedication of the Levy family.
Susan Stein: What I think people should recognize when they come to Monticello is that its preservation is solely due to the informed involvement and protection by the Levy family for 89 years. We wouldn't have this extraordinary place to discuss, understand, admire, enjoy, without Uriah Phillips Levy and Jefferson Monroe Levy, and you can see their reminders everywhere. Each not only protected the physical house, but also objects that remained with it, such as the large pier mirrors in the parlor, the pendant lighting fixture in the hall, the brackets that held sculpture in the hall, and they also tried to acquire things that belonged to Thomas Jefferson and had been at Monticello. I encourage everyone to take part in a discussion that engages the best ideas of Thomas Jefferson, as well as Uriah Levy, and understand that in spite of their aspirations, they were both, unfortunately, slaveholders.
Marc Leepson: I think that people, when they come to Monticello, should make it a point of going to see Rachel Levy's grave. Uriah Levy bought the place in 1834, he didn't move in until 1836. He brought his elderly mother to live there. He was out at sea a couple of years later when she died and she was buried along Mulberry Row. There's great interpretation there now that gives a snapshot of the Levys' invaluable contribution to Monticello.
Susan Stein: Thank you very much, Marc. And I can't wait to see Steve Pressman's film about the Levys. I know that both he and I have been inspired by your work.
Marc Leepson: It's just been an absolute pleasure to talk about one of my favorite subjects, the Levys and Monticello, in this podcast. Thanks to everybody who's listening. Come to the house. Think about that place with new eyes after you know the story of what happened after Thomas Jefferson died.
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Narrated by Steven Pressman, writer, producer, and director of the documentary film, The Levys of Monticello.
Hosted by Marc Leepson, author of Saving Monticello, and Susan Stein, Monticello's Richard Gilder Senior Curator, Special Projects
Production, direction and editing by Joan Horn
Sound design by Dennis Hysom
Executive Production by Chad Wollerton and Joan Horn