By Judith Fein
I’ve never met an American who didn’t have a soft spot in his heart for Thomas Jefferson, and who didn’t love Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, Va. Of course the property was also a plantation, which tells you that our third president (1801-1809) was a slave owner, and DNA evidence has ascertained that he fathered at least one, and probably several, children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Starting in Jefferson’s lifetime, there were a lot of winks, nods and written accusations made about the Tom and Sally affair, but we’ll never know exactly what went on between the man who penned the Declaration of Independence and his slave, who was partially white and may have been the half-sister of Jefferson’s deceased wife.
After Jefferson retired from the presidency, he went to live full-time in Monticello, and the house is a testament to Jefferson’s architectural genius; in fact, he called it his “essay in architecture.” The 11,000-square-foot neoclassical mansion has 21 rooms, and from the moment you walk past the stone columns and set foot in the reception and waiting room, with its grass-green floor and museum-like exhibits of natural history specimens and Native American and African artifacts, you know you are in the domain of a man of taste, knowledge, broad interests and probably unlimited resources.
Alas, even presidential resources can run out. Unlike today’s politicians, the first men who helmed our fledgling nation often left office penniless and in debt. Jefferson was no exception. By the time he died, he was in the hole some $100,000 ($2 million today), and it took decades for his heirs to eliminate the debt.
During his lifetime, Jefferson entertained lavishly, often hosting dozens of guests for weeks at a time. (Monticello includes 12 guestrooms, one of which is called “The Madison Room” because President James and First Lady Dolley Madison stayed there). He also spent freely, and there was no presidential pension at the time. His heirs could not afford to keep Monticello and, to the shock and sadness of everyone who adored and admired the book room (which held more than 6,000 volumes), bedroom (where his bed was surrounded by the latest gadgets and technological inventions), dining room (with its dumbwaiters, hidden in the fireplace, which brought wine up from the cellar) guestrooms, art collection and dome room, the plantation had to be sold.
Historical treasure or not, no one wanted it. In 1827, Jefferson’s daughter and grandson auctioned off his slaves and other possessions, right down to stored grain and farm equipment. The empty house decayed from lack of upkeep. Finally, the estate was purchased by James Turner Barclay for $7,000, but he held onto it for just three years. And this is where our story begins.
A hint about the estate’s next owner is still at Monticello, on Mulberry Row, next to slave and work cabins, prodigious vegetable gardens and mulberry trees. There, a rather nondescript tomb is the final resting place of Rachel Levy, mother of Monticello’s third owner, Uriah P. Levy. The plantation remained in the Levy (pronounced “levee”) family for 89 years. In fact, it is postulated that Uriah Levy was a founder of America’s historic preservation movement because, at that time and well into the 20th century, there was no great interest in maintaining historical homes and sites.
Uriah Levy was a very colorful and controversial character. Not only an ardent Jefferson admirer, he was also the first Jewish American to make a career as a U.S. naval officer. Larger than life, he was a hero in the War of 1812, defended Jewish rights, campaigned against flogging in the Navy, killed a man in a duel, was court martialed six times, and, at age 61, he took a teenage wife who proudly nailed a mezzuzah on the doorpost of his captain’s quarters. Levy was also the descendent of a crypto Jewish doctor in Portugal who was saved by the Grand Inquisitor because the latter needed him to treat a bladder infection. When Uriah Levy’s parents got married, it was probably the first Jewish wedding in America, and it’s believed that no less a personage than George Washington attended.
Today, in the waiting room of Monticello, which once held 28 chairs to accommodate the president’s visitors, tour guides point out an ingenious seven-day clock, which Jefferson designed. It still functions today and is driven by two large, cannon ball-like weights, which hang on both sides of the front door. The clock governed the time schedule in the house and plantation; it was attached to a Chinese gong which could be heard by slaves more than three miles away. It is thanks to Uriah Levy that the clock and other possessions and designs of Thomas Jefferson are available to tourists today. If he hadn’t spent a huge amount of money on the restoration and upkeep of Monticello, it would have sunk into sad dilapidation.
Levy’s personal relationship with the plantation was not without its difficulties. It took years of wrangling to finalize the terms of ownership. Once he took possession, the house and grounds were beset by hoards of unknown visitors who trampled the gardens and even chipped off pieces of Jefferson’s burial monument. Anti-Semitism also entered the fray when Levy was accused of buying the presidential home for personal gain and derided for being an alien — an outsider in America.
When he died childless, his odd and obscure will was contested by his family heirs for l7 years as the house decayed. Finally, in 1879, his nephew Jefferson Monroe Levy (the name certainly suggests family patriotism), gained the title to the property. He was a handsome and fabulously wealthy New York lawyer, real estate mogul, stock speculator and three-term U.S. congressman. He never married and indicated on several occasions that he dedicated his life and fortune to the upkeep, restoration and refurbishing (in true Jeffersonian style) of Monticello.
But his uncle’s difficulties with Monticello unfortunately presaged some of his own. J. M. Levy opened Monticello to vast numbers of tourists, claimed to live by Jeffersonian principles, lavishly entertained luminaries like Theodore Roosevelt, foreign ambassadors and U.S. congressmen, but was still attacked for being a latter-day Shylock and exploiting Thomas Jefferson’s memory. There was a movement to wrest ownership away from him and hand it to the government. Levy defended his right to keep the estate and insisted it would never be turned over to anyone else, including the government.
By the year 1911, the opposition to J.M. Levy’s private ownership of Monticello had reached a fevered pitch. His main opponent was Maud Littleton, a New York socialite. Her attacks on Levy were relentless, hostile and anti-Semitic. The invective came during a time when there was a huge influx of Jews into America and anti-immigrant sentiment was strong. Even though the Levy family had been in America for five generations, they were still considered to be interlopers, outsiders and certainly not American enough to own the house that President Jefferson built.
J.M. Levy, who had lived the high life for so long, was beset by financial difficulties, and, after holding out as long as he could, finally agreed to sell Monticello for $500,000 to the government. Although many considered the asking price to be exorbitant, J.M. Levy insisted it was half of what he had spent on the estate. For years, the proposal for the government to purchase Monticello was tossed around from committee to committee. Finally, the asking price was met by a private group — the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Reportedly, J.M. Levy burst out crying when he signed over the deed to his beloved estate. He died insolvent before his 72nd birthday.
Tour guides at Monticello today mention the Levy family only in passing because they have insufficient time to relate the dramatic events that took place during almost nine decades of Levy ownership.
When you go, pause for a moment at Rachel Levy’s tomb. If you have the inclination, thank Uriah and Jefferson Levy for preserving what is now one of the most beloved tourist destinations in America.
IF YOU GO:
Stop at the Monticello gift shop and buy “Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built,” by Marc Leepson. It’s a fast-paced but detailed and fascinating read.
Monticello is now a stop on the new Journey Through Hallowed Ground — a 180-mile trail through American history, national parks, wineries, museums, battlefields and nine presidential homes.