Exhibited below is a November 4, 1853 business letter written by Moses Elias Levy from Charleston:
I see by the Jacksonville News that the Probate Judge gives notice to all Creditors of Jones to present the claims against his estate before May – the estate having been declared insolvent. Are we to wait until the settlement of the estate before we fall on hart, who with Jones jointly signed the note? Farewell friend, M.E. Levy.
Levy (1782-1854) is best known for his establishment of the earliest Jewish settlement on American soil, for being an outspoken Southern abolitionist, and as the father of David Levy Yulee, Florida’s first U.S. senator and the nation’s first Jewish senator.
Although he was a respected businessman with broad business interests and international connections who attained great material success, he never forgot his religious and cultural Jewish heritage and spent his entire adult life as a social activist, religious reformer, and utopian visionary. In addition, he significantly advanced agricultural development and public education in Florida, where he later served as the state’s secretary of education.
Descended from a wealthy and influential Sephardic family – his father was a prominent figure in the Ottoman Empire and an adviser to the Sultan – Levy was raised in Gibraltar before making his way to St. Thomas in 1800, where he engaged in the lumber business and accumulated a considerable fortune. After relocating to Florida in 1820, he began purchasing land in north central Florida that eventually exceeded 100,000 acres.
More than seven decades before Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Levy embarked on his own “New Jerusalem” plan to resettle oppressed and persecuted European Jews on Pilgrimage Plantation, which he built on 1,000 acres near Gainesville and designated as a place for Jews to learn farming and study Hebrew and Bible.
With very strong feelings about the benefits an agricultural community could have for exile-weary Jews, and believing firmly in the concepts of Divine Providence and Messianic redemption, Levy thought that he could hasten the coming of the Messiah by creating a separate Jewish homeland in Florida, which then had a statewide population of only about 200 Jews, with no viable antebellum Jewish community.
Although influenced by the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) and generally rejecting Rabbinic law to “strengthen Jewish identity through modernization,” he nonetheless remained a Sabbath observer and passionate devotee of the Jewish Bible, which he studied every day. His devotion to the Torah was such that he sought to institute it as law at his Pilgrimage Plantation, which he ran like a modern Israeli moshav: private ownership and communal labor.
Levy hired Frederick Warburg to recruit Jewish settlers for the colony, and Warburg and five other German Jewish families lived on the plantation, as well as Levy’s son, David. Levy was tireless in his efforts to secure necessary equipment and provisions, including sugar cane he brought in for planting; some historians credit him with being the first sugar cane importer in the United States.
Maintaining the colony was a demanding and continuing challenge, mostly due to its hostile and remote location. It stood from 1822 until it was burned down in 1835 during the second Seminole Indian War. At the end of the day, Levy had succeeded in bringing few Jewish settlers to Florida and, after the failure of Pilgrimage Plantation, he abandoned his Jewish dream.
During a trip to recruit colonists for Pilgrimage, Levy anonymously published A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery in London in 1828, which put him squarely in the forefront of a growing anti-slavery movement. As one of the few among the anti-slavery forces with actual experience as a slave owner and Caribbean planter, he was radically out of accord with the prevailing political, economic, and social views of the antebellum South.
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In the January 23, 1858 correspondence exhibited above, David Levy Yulee writes from Washington, D.C.: “Please send one of the copies of the “Globe” to which I may be entitled to the ‘Ed[itor]’s Home Companion,’ Ocala, Florida – in the nos. issued – commencing with [our?] session.
Although historians generally refer to him as “the key architect of Florida statehood,” Yulee (1810-86) was also known as “the Father of Florida Railroads” for founding the Florida Railroad Company and launching Florida’s first cross-peninsula line, which connected the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean (and which he built, at least in part, using slave labor); as “the Florida Fire Eater” for his provocative pro-slavery rhetoric, including advocacy for re-opening the overseas slave trade; and as “the Great Floridian” for his seminal contributions to Florida politically and economically.
Yulee made key developmental contributions not only in his capacity as a railroad pioneer, but also as a community builder and developer who planned Florida’s infrastructure, including developing ports and the state postal system, and reintroducing citrus fruit farming to Florida.
Nonetheless, to his political enemies – and there were many – his very name was an anathema. These included ex-President John Quincy Adams, who attacked him as “the Jew delegate from Florida” who was particularly unfit because, as a Sephardic descendent, he contained “African blood”; Andrew Johnson, who called him a “miserable little cuss, a contemptible little Jew”; and Sam Houston, who characterized him as “an untrustworthy little gypsy Jew.”
Upon Florida’s admission to the Union in 1845, a grateful Florida legislature elected him as the state’s first senator, making him the first Jew ever to serve in the United States Senate. As senator, he was a political conservative, a tireless champion of state’s rights, a formidable voice for the institution of slavery, and a strong secession supporter who was among the group of Southern senators who helped to plan the Confederacy (he was the first senator to declare his state’s secession from the Union to Congress).
Levy officially changed his name to Levy Yulee by official act of the Florida legislature before his marriage to the Christian daughter of the ex-governor of Kentucky in 1846. There is an entire mythology that continues to this day regarding the reasons from his name change – including his acceding to the demands of his Christian wife and/or her family, his desire to undermine his connection with Judaism, and his desire to gain political and social advantage by sidestepping anti-Semitism. But Yulee himself publicly explained his reason:
The name which my father inherited was that which I asked permission to resume. It was his pleasure to suspend its use after leaving his parental home and to employ the name of Levy in its stead. From reasons that will naturally suggest themselves in every heart that holds in great regard the memory of those through whom we trace our being and our lineage, I have thought it becoming in me as a reverential duty to reclaim the name and restore it in the register of the human race.
Yulee rejected pressure from both his Jewish father and his Christian in-laws to fully live what they deemed to be the proper religious life. On one hand, he cut himself off from any connection with Jews, raised his children as Christians, and lived a Christian public life, which included regular church attendance.
On the other hand, he never dropped the “Levy” from his name; he resisted lifelong pressure from his wife and others to formally convert; he never denied or hid his Jewish identity; and he maintained a loyalty of a sorts to the traditions of his family and ancestors, albeit more in terms of maintaining a racial and historic bond than a religious one.
Born in St. Thomas, West Indies, Yulee had been taken to the United States in 1818 by his father, Moses Elias Levy. At first, he had managed one of his father’s Florida plantations, but Moses disowned him after learning that his son shared neither his love of Judaism nor his abhorrence of slavery.
After his admission to the Florida Bar in 1832, he became a successful lawyer and was elected to the Territorial Legislature, where he championed Florida statehood and became well-known as a vigorous defender of white settler rights. He served as a delegate to the Florida constitutional convention and played an important role in drafting Florida’s first constitution in 1838.
Levy (he had not yet changed his name) was elected delegate to the House of Representatives for the Florida Territory in 1841, but his seat was challenged when anti-Semitic opponents argued that because of his Sephardic Jewish ancestry, he wasn’t actually an American citizen. After investigations, hearings, and committee votes on the issue, the full House failed to issue a definitive opinion. Levy was permitted to take his seat, and commenced working to gain Florida statehood and to fight for the extension of slavery to newly-admitted states.
After the Civil War, he was appointed by the governor to travel to Washington to negotiate Florida’s readmission to the Union. However, Yulee was arrested as a traitor and interred in a Federal prison for a year, until being released through the intercession of General Ulysses Grant – thus making Yulee and Jefferson Davis the last two Confederate leaders to be pardoned after the Civil War.
After his release, Yulee retired from politics and dedicated himself to reestablishing Florida’s standing in the United States, restoring Florida’s prosperity, and expanding commerce, particularly rebuilding the state’s railway system, which had been virtually destroyed by the war.
Both Levy County and the town of Yulee are named for him, as are countless bridges, streets, buildings, residence halls, and museums in Florida. Curiously, the first statue honoring Yulee was not unveiled until June 12, 2014 at the historic train depot in Fernandina Beach, Florida – and this notwithstanding the contemporary furor over demands to remove statues memorializing slave owners, slavery supporters, and leaders of the Confederacy.