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Uriah Phillips Levy

This is the fascinating story of the earliest mutiny case against an American captain and ship owner, Uriah Philips Levy (1792 – 1862). Levy was also the first Jewish commodore in American history; the man who successfully took on the entire United States Navy in opposing the then-common practice of flogging; a major philanthropist and supporter of American Jewish causes who stood bravely, often at great personal risk, against anti-Semitism; and the savior and restorer of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.

Levy’s historic seafaring career began rather inauspiciously when, at age 10, he ran away from his Philadelphia home to join the trading ship New Jerusalem as a cabin boy, returning to his family for his bar mitzvah at Mikveh Israel, where he read the Torah. (Levy’s maternal grandfather, who greatly influenced him, served as the president of Mikveh Israel. As a soldier in the American Revolution, his grandfather had written military letters in Yiddish – a language unknown to the British – to transmit top-secret information.)

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After failing to convince Uriah to join the family business in retail trade, his father apprenticed him for four years to John Coultron, one of Philadelphia’s leading ship owners. When President Jefferson imposed an embargo on all trade with Europe (1807), idling the ships and leaving nothing for Levy to do, Coultron sent his young apprentice to navigation school. When the embargo was lifted, Levy returned to sea with greater proficiencies and maturity.

By the age of 18 Levy had embarked on a number of profitable voyages, serving in various capacities – including cabin boy; boatswain; third, second, and first mate; and captain – during his apprenticeship. By age 19 he had earned sufficient funds to purchase an interest in a trading ship, the new schooner George Washington.

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In one early incident while a mere seaman, Levy manifested his pride at being both a Jew and an American – and paid dearly for it. Accosted by a British gang seeking young men to force into service in the British Navy, Levy showed them his American citizenship certification. Upon being told “You don’t look like an American, you look like a Jew,” he pugnaciously replied, “I am an American, a sailor, and a Jew.”

When the British sergeant said, “Well, if the Americans have a Jew peddler manning the ships, it’s no wonder they sail so badly,” Levy struck him in the jaw but was quickly knocked out by the gang, kidnapped, and forced to serve for many months on a British ship. When the British commander, recognizing Levy’s skills and character, demanded that he join the British Navy, Levy refused, saying, “Sir, I cannot take the oath. I am an American and cannot swear allegiance to your king. And I am a Hebrew and do not swear on your testament, or with my head uncovered.”

Finally, after an audience with the British naval commander in Jamaica, Levy’s papers were deemed to be in order and he was released.

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Before setting sail as commander of the George Washington, Levy nailed the mezuzah given to him by his parents on the frame of his cabin door. On October 17, 1811, the schooner left Philadelphia on its maiden voyage with crew Samuel Tully (first mate); John Dalton, Daniel Hopkins, George Cummings, and Joseph Neal (sailors); and John Owen (cook). It arrived on December 23 at Tenerife (Canary Islands), where Levy sold his cargo of corn for 2,500 Spanish dollars.

He picked up 14 cases of Tenerife Canary wine for delivery to the Isle of May (Cape Verde Islands), where he moored on January 4, 1812, leaving Tully in charge of the ship while he, Levy, took a rowboat to visit another captain. When he returned, however, the George Washington was gone. A search revealed that the ship’s cables had been cut. Tully had taken over the schooner and he and co-conspirators Dalton and Cummings set sail.

When Cummings became uneasy with his role in the mutiny and tried to wrest control of the ship, Tully and Dalton threw him overboard, leaving him to die at sea. A day after the brutal murder, they scuttled the schooner, loaded the lifeboat with Levy’s money and property, and sailed to the Island of St. Lucie (Lesser Antilles), where they paid Owen – who was not involved in either the mutiny or the murder – a few dollars out of Levy’s $2,500 to keep quiet, split the rest, and concocted a cover story.

Though he initially stuck to the agreed-upon cover story, Owen soon confessed the truth to an American captain he met on St. Lucie, and Levy sailed to the island after learning from the American Consulate there about the arrest of Tully, Dalton, and Owen. The three defendants were brought back to Boston to face trial and, on October 15, 1812, the grand jury returned three bills of indictment: one for piratically and feloniously running away with the George Washington from the care of her master and taking the casks of wine and cash on board; another for the murder of George Cummings on the high sea; and the third for feloniously scuttling and casting away the vessel (they had torn holes in the schooner’s bottom).

The three men pled not guilty, but upon the testimony of Levy and Owen, who turned government witness (and was acquitted), Tully and Dalton were convicted and sentenced to death by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story.

Dalton’s attorney had argued at trial that his client was merely an accessory and, as such, should be treated differently from Tully, an argument that ultimately saved Dalton’s life. The executions by hanging were scheduled for December 10, 1812 in Boston, where an estimated 15,000 people (almost half the population of the town at the time) were in attendance at the gallows.

After Tully was put to death, Dalton was brought to the scaffold, the rope was placed around his neck, and the black execution cap was drawn over his head. Literally at the last possible second before his execution, the marshal stepped forward holding a document and announcing that he had received a reprieve from the president. Shown here is that document, in which President Madison commuted Dalton’s execution (the document is also originally signed by Secretary of State James Monroe):

Whereas it has been made to appear to me that a certain John Dalton was at a Circuit Court of the United States lately held for the District of Massachusetts duly convicted of the offense of Piracy, and thereupon judgment of death was rendered against him, the said John Dalton . . . to be executed on the 10th day of December ensuing: Now be it known that I James Madison, President of the United States of America, for divers [sic] good causes and considerations do by these presents Respite the execution of the judgment against Dalton until the tenth day of January in the year 1813; requiring the Marshal for the said District, his Deputies or Officers to govern themselves accordingly.

Dalton would later be fully pardoned.

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After these events, Levy joined the U.S. Navy and fought in the Barbary Wars before being assigned as a sailing master to the U.S.S. Argus during the War of 1812, in which capacity he successfully interdicted 20 British ships in the English Channel before being captured by the British and incarcerated in Dartmoor Prison in England. After his release at the end of the war 16 months later, he returned to the navy and went on to rise to lieutenant (1817), master commandant (1837), captain (1844), and commodore (1857).

Because of his intense pride in his Judaism – and his thin-skinned inability to shrug off the repeated anti-Semitic remarks and charges leveled against him – he was court-martialed by the Navy six times, which remains the all-time record even today, two centuries later. Interestingly, and notwithstanding this less-than-perfect military disciplinary record, President Lincoln appointed him to serve on the Court-Martial Board in Washington during the Civil War.

In one famous case, in 1816, Levy was challenged to a pistol duel by William Potter, an anti-Semitic crewmate, and when he tried to dissuade Potter from battling over a trivial dispute, Potter called him a “Jew coward.”

When the duel judge asked Levy if he had anything to say, he asked permission to recite a Hebrew prayer, the Shema Yisrael, and announced “Although I am a crack shot, I shall not fire at my opponent.” After Potter missed five times and Levy responded each time by firing into the air, Potter nicked Levy in his ear on his final shot and Levy took aim and killed him.

The court-martial panel found that Levy was neither the provocateur nor the aggressor and, after his acquittal, he was advised to discontinue his Navy career because he would always be subject to anti-Semitism. According to Levy’s memoirs, he responded:

What will be the fate of our Navy if others such as I refuse to serve because of the prejudices of the few? There will be other Hebrews, in times to come, of whom America will have need. By serving myself, I will help give them a chance to serve.

In other courts-martial, Levy was once demoted from the rank of captain and was twice actually dismissed from the Navy before being reinstated.

In the first of these dismissals, Levy, who vehemently opposed the flogging of American seamen, eliminated corporal punishment and instituted his own disciplinary system, for which he was court-martialed and thrown out of the Navy (1842) before President Tyler interceded and overturned the decision. (Levy later played an instrumental role in congressional passage of an 1850 anti-flogging law.)

In the second case, Levy fought his dismissal by the Navy through a Congressional Court of Inquiry (1857), testifying that “My parents were Israelites and I was raised in the faith of my ancestors. In deciding to adhere to it, I have all but exercised a right given to all men by the Constitution…a right given to all men by their maker.” The court reversed, finding that the dismissal was “because he was of the Jewish persuasion.” After reinstatement, he went on to command the Mediterranean fleet and to earn the Navy’s highest rank, commodore.

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Through shrewd investments in real estate late in his career, Levy earned great wealth, became a renowned philanthropist, and helped to support many Jewish-American causes and institutions. He also served as the first president of the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C., and sponsored the new Jewish seminary of the Bnai Jeshurun Educational Institute in New York (1854).

A great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, Levy purchased Monticello in 1836. Jefferson’s Virginia home had fallen into great disrepair and Levy immediately announced that, after restoring the property to its original condition, he would open it to the public. (Not surprisingly, anti-Semitic tales persist even to date about how the duplicitous Jew took advantage of a poor drunk relative of Jefferson’s to purchase the property.)

Levy left Monticello to the American people to be used as an agricultural school for the orphans of Navy warrant officers (1862) but because of Civil War, Congress refused to accept the donation. The Confederate government seized and sold the property; lawyers for Levy’s estate recovered it after the war; and the house and grounds remained in the Levy family until the estate was sold to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923.

According to Susan Stein, the Richard Gilder Senior curator at Monticello, the protection of Monticello by the Levy family “was one of the milestones in the history of historic preservation in America.”

A statue of Jefferson commissioned by Levy sits in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

In 1959 the Navy’s oldest Jewish chapel, in Norfolk, Virginia, was renamed the “Commodore Levy Chapel” in honor of Levy’s dedication to his faith and country, and in 2011 a statue of Levy commissioned by two Jewish U.S. Navy captains was dedicated at Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, where Levy had his bar mitzvah.

The U.S.S. Levy, a Navy destroyer named in his memory, hosted the surrender of the Japanese Navy in 1945.

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