Excerpt from the First Chapter of Two Covenants: Representations of Southern Jewishness
“The Supreme Sacrifice of Lifelong Association”: Uriah Levy, Jefferson Levy, and the Ownership of Monticello
Between the time of Thomas Jefferson’s residence at his Virginia plantation Monticello and the site’s incarnation as a historical site and museum, the property belonged to two Jewish men. Uriah Phillips Levy bought Monticello in 1836, and his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy owned it from 1879 to 1923. From the documents surrounding each man’s involvement with the property, a portrait of the special positions Jewish Americans have historically maintainedand been assigned by their non-Jewish countrymenemerges. The Levys strove for subjective cultural articulation through their possession of Jefferson’s southern mansion. They were not models of southern Jewishness; they spent most of the year in the North, exempt from entrenchment in the cultural placement of southern Jews. Yet their affiliation with Monticello, an icon as southern as it is American, represents a link between southernness and Jewishness within a larger context of nationhood.
The Levys’ ownership of Monticello makes it a permeable site, not only Jefferson’s residence or a museum. Through the Levy possession, the house becomes more than a fixed symbol or a mere enlargement of itself as familiarly depicted on nickels. It becomes a culturally fluid locus. Jefferson’s biographer Joseph J. Ellis calls Jefferson the “Great Sphinx of American history,” because he is “the enigmatic and elusive touchstone for the most cherished convictions and contested truths in American culture” (1997, 10). Typically, the enigma at the heart of his reputation is Jefferson’s owning slaves while professing that “all men are created equal.” Monticello, his literal home as well as the axis of the Jeffersonian symbol system, is reflectively enigmatic, but its mystery pushes beyond the cleavage of slavery and freedom at the center of the revolutionary mind. The contest for Monticello became a national matter, demonstrating the diversification Jewishness can produce within southern images that some desire totalized.
Monticello is a crucial part of Jefferson’s image and legacy, a space that embodies the sentiments Americans feel toward Jefferson himself. As Merrill D. Peterson writes, “Monticello! Jefferson’s life rendered visible. Not an American with a shiny new nickel . . . is without some image of the place” (1960, 388). The representation of the property on the U.S. five-cent piece is an apt symbol of the static image of Monticello as an American symbol of presidential power and grace. The Levys’ ownership constitutes a less easily depicted history associated with the property. Monticello houses different representations of Jefferson, and the question of who owns which ones nags throughout the Levys’ involvement with the property. In the Levys’ respective cases, the confusion of images resulted in technical questions of belonging. Although each Levy relinquished Monticello in his own time, their separate desires to own it, and the desire of others to take the property from Jefferson Levy, represent the tension inherent within the question of who owns the South.
The Levys’ tenures at Monticello make the plantation a space instead of a place, according to Michel de Certeau’s definitions. As he notes, spaces exist “when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables” (1984, 117). In contrast, places consist of “an instantaneous configuration of positions.” Spaces change with time and locale, while places represent a finite moment. De Certeau’s work provides a lexicon for monuments and their purposes. Historical sites, like Monticello, challenge us to situate them within these definitions as we use them to create a historical narrative. Monticello is, for many Americans, a place to be visited and photographed, somewhere to create a stationary moment. Tourists depict Monticello as a set, producing pictures of themselves superimposed over the frozen structure and rendering it fixed in place. They depart Monticello with an image of it immobilized at the moment it included them.
But just as Jefferson himself has refused containment, the history of the building itself demonstrates its original owner’s standing as “protean” (Peterson 1960, 9). The intercession of the Levys renders Monticello a space in which concepts of nationhood and ownership contest meaning. For the enemies of their ownership, the Levys’ Jewishness was, in de Certeau’s terms, one vector too many. The Levys’ intercession in the story of Monticello decenters its narrative as the home of an American aristocrat; or, as Peterson writes, “a symbol of the nation’s civilized values” (1960, 389). The Levys’ involvement complicates the notion of the house as shrine, causing Monticello to outgrow the dominant culture’s classification of it as a hallowed, static place. The Levys become implements of expanded and confusing meaning by including themselves and their Jewishness in Jefferson’s situation. Uriah Phillips Levy, who initiated the Levys’ relation with Monticello, idolized Thomas Jefferson because of his ideals of religious freedom. As well as renovating Jefferson’s house, he donated the David d’Angers statue of Jefferson to the United States government in 1834.
The Levys’ affiliation with Monticello dismantled it as a two-dimensional emblem, as it appears on the five-cent piece, and recreated it as a complex site. Now, though, its attributes did not always match its symbolism. Benedict Anderson discusses how individuals like the Levys, peripheral to the dominant culture, create “imagined communities,” which Monticello itself becomes via the Levys’ ownership of it. To create this sort of subjective space requires the marginalization the Levys represented. Their positions on the borders of southern society allowed them to create a niche for themselves and Monticello together, at least for a time. Anderson writes, “What I am proposing is that neither economic interest, Liberalism, nor Enlightenment could, or did, create in themselves the kind, or shape, of imagined community to be defended from these regimes’ depredations; to put it another way, none provided the framework of a new consciousnessthe scarcely-seen periphery of its visionas opposed to centre-field objects of its admiration or disgust. In accomplishing this specific task, pilgrim creole functionaries and provincial creole printmen played the decisive historic role” (1983, 65). The Levys are creole printmen and Monticello their text. Their ownership of the structure invited a new, often unwelcome, consciousness from those around them. Jefferson Levy’s adversaries in particular remained stymied along Anderson’s spectrum of admiration and disgust, mostly listing toward disgust. The Levys themselves may have shared this general diametric worldview, unaware that they were demonstrating a new “framework” to the majority of southern society. But with their desire for Monticello they showed a new sort of patriotism, a way to intercede with history and historic sites besides making them into museums. In this manner, they were moving toward a demonstration of a new consciousness. They produced a way to relate to the southern land and its history that superseded those of the nearby Virginia shrines, like George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the Lees’ Stratford Hall.
For the Levys and other Americans, Monticello was a natural symbol of Thomas Jefferson, one of the South’s most famous contributions to America. Virginia, home state of Jefferson and his house, is the seat of the aristocratic South. As Jefferson’s home, Monticello demonstrates the relevance of a southern plantation to the country as a whole, a locale that spawned one of America’s founding leaders. Virginia is also the birthplace of southern antebellum mythology. As W. J. Cash writes, “Here was all that in aftertime was to give color to the legend of the Old South. . . . Here were great houses, not so great as we are sometimes told, but still great houses” (1941, 5).
While Virginia and its figures of Cavalier myth symbolize the plantation legend, they are also crucial to the beginning of America as a nation. The history of Virginia is that of both the South and America; two of the country’s progenitors, Washington and Jefferson, were Virginians, and Jamestown, Virginia, was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Its old houses are attractions, ostensibly representative of a society and a bygone way of life. Stratford Hall, a 1940 pamphlet advertising the home of the Lees, reads “As Williamsburg [Virginia] typifies colonial town life, so Stratford typifies colonial country life.” Just as Virginia is the home of Washington, Jefferson, and Lee, the homes of these figures in turn represent Virginia as the birthplace of the country and the South. Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall underwent similar enshrining during the middle of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, respectively, the epochs during which Uriah and subsequently Jefferson Levy focused on Monticello.
Attention to these homes became quasi-religious. The houses were referred to as “shrines,” and in his 1910 book about Mount Vernon’s restoration Thomas Nelson Page calls its female caretakers “vestals.” In 1853, Ann Pamela Cunningham salvaged Washington’s home from dereliction by writing a plea to the women of America to protect it. Page writes of Washington: “Whatever his accomplishments in his mighty career, whatever the fruitage, of which the world has been partaker, here was the garden where his powers sprang, here the soil in which they reached their complete vigor and ripeness, and here by his desire, at his death his sacred ashes were laid” (1). Mount Vernon is part of Washington’s body, organically connected to the man and his feats. The idea of the agrarian melds with the religious as the harvestWashington himselfeventually becomes “sacred ashes.” Page emphasizes the proximity between Washington and his home. In her own writing, Cunningham employs religious imagery throughout her farewell address, which charges her successors to keep Mount Vernon “religiously guarded from change” and to let “no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the changes of progress” (1853, 62). Cunningham, whose pen name was “A Southern Matron,” prefigures the concerns of the Vanderbilt Agrarians in their 1930 I’ll Take My Stand. Change and progress, the twin enemies of the South in the agrarian manifesto, are likewise anathema to George Washington and his metonym, Mount Vernon. Canonizing Washington metaphorically invokes awe for him and his sacred ashes. Similar to a shrine, Mount Vernon should remain a static place devoted to Washington’s sanctity.
Like the years before the Civil War when Cunningham was fighting for Mount Vernon’s preservation, the years leading up to the Great Depression represented a high point of patriotism and interest in the country’s history. Stratford Hall, on Virginia’s Northern Neck, is the ancestral home of the Lee family, the aristocratic Virginians who gave rise to Robert E. Lee, hero of the South, as well as two signers of the Declaration of Independence. Lees lived at Stratford from 1653, and Robert E. Lee was born in the same room as his ancestors. The last Lee to own Stratford was Henry Lee, Robert E. Lee’s half-brother, who was eighteen years older than his famous sibling. In 1820 Henry Lee had an affair with his wife’s sister while his morphine-addicted wife grieved for a recently dead child. Ruined both socially and financially by his indiscretion, Henry Lee lost Stratford Hall, and in 1822, William Clarke Somerville’s purchase of the property marked the end of Lee ownership. In 1929, Charles Stuart sold Stratford to the Robert E. Lee Memorial Foundation, which operates it today.
Like Mount Vernon, Stratford was positioned as and remains a monument to its most famous inhabitants, particularly Robert E. Lee. Franklin D. Roosevelt prefaced Ethel Armes’s 1936 Stratford Hall with “It is right and fitting that Stratford is being made once more a shrine to which the lovers of the history of our land can come from every part of the nation” (xxv). In 1928, Armes traveled to Stratford and, struck by its desolation as compared with the progress at nearby Colonial Williamsburg, thought “perhaps Stratford . . . might be acquired for a national shrine” (447). Armes quotes an article that appeared in the Louisville Courier Journal in 1929, under the heading “Marse Robert’s Home”: “Here is but another proof of the binding together of our colonial ancestry into a homogeneous whole and evidence that we, their descendants, are all of one blood” (449). Simultaneously, the newspaper uses the nickname “Marse Robert,” an approximation of slave dialect appropriated by Confederate soldiers, to remind readers who Lee is: the symbol of the Old South, paterfamilias to the system of antebellum plantations. Stratford houses disparity under one roof and becomes stationary.
Stratford Hall and Mount Vernon are places, handed with care to diligent restoration committees whose function is to immobilize and worship the houses of famous men. They shelter the Old South, perpetrating for visitors an immobile diorama of southernness in its agrarian glory. For the Levys, owning Monticello becomes a key to belonging to a culture that values such sites. As Albert Boime writes, “any patriotic totem that makes us feel less isolated, that relieves our anxiety about communal existence, that makes us feel safer as part of a larger collective existence performs a valuable service” (1998, 8). The Levys’ tenure at the plantation provides relief, a way to prove the relevance of their places in the “larger collective experience.” Their ownership of Monticello represents a juncture of southernness and Jewishness that indicates the pressure American culture places upon its historical sites to stay, in de Certeau’s terms, “safe” places instead of fluid spaces.
Both Uriah Levy and Jefferson Levy achieved eminence in official capacities, Uriah Levy as a commodore in the United States Navy and Jefferson Levy as New York State’s representative to the House during the 56th, 62nd, and 63rd Congresses. Their accomplishments appear mostly in footnotes to mainstream American history; and in Jewish American history, they are placed alongside those of Judah P. Benjamin and Henry Kissinger as examples of prominent American Jews in government. Uriah Levy’s life, for example, has inspired at least three quasi-historical biographies.
The Levys’ relationship with Jefferson’s house began in 1834 with Uriah Phillips Levy. Levy was born in Philadelphia in 1792, and first signed onto a ship as cabin boy at the age of ten. At twenty, he joined the United States Navy as a sailing master. Levy’s naval career was checkered with courts-martial, which Frederick Cople Jaher situates as prefiguring the anti-Semitism that arose during the Civil War (1994, 137). Levy worked to abolish flogging in the Navy, and titled himself “Father of the law for the Abolition of the barbarous practice of corporal punishment in the Navy of the United States.” He admired Thomas Jefferson, and during the 1830s commissioned a statue of Jefferson to present to Congress. The deed of ownership demonstrating that Levy bought Monticello from James Barclaywho had owned it since 1831was signed on May 20, 1836. Levy worked to restore the plantation, and even buried his mother, Rachel Phillips Levy, on the grounds.
200 pages, 6 x 9
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