In 1733, one of the first settlers of Savannah, GA, was a Sephardic Jew from Spain, Dr. Samuel Nunes Riberio. The decision to flee Spain for the New World had a positive impact on other early settlers and his descendants would continue to have a positive impact throughout the birth of the United States and beyond.
Uriah Levy was one such descendant who would not be born until 1792. There are varying accounts as to when Levy entered merchant service, somewhere between the age of ten to fourteen. Regardless of the age, it started him down a path that would alter United States Naval history.
By the age of twenty, he had become part owner and Master of a brig-of-war ship called Argus. This was one of the ships with the dangerous task of running the British blockade to France. Without those ships, the blockade would have left the United States vulnerable to the British.
On Levy’s return trip, his ship destroyed twenty-one British merchant ships and captured an unknown number of other types of British ships, which Levy armed. The Argus was sunk during a battle with the British frigate Pelican, which was heavily armed. He was captured and spent sixteen months in Dartmoor Prison.
The Father of the United States Navy, Captain John Paul Jones, wrote the book that is still studied by the Navy today. His book was clear that officers should be chosen based on ability, rather than social standing and relations to high ranking people. It was not until the War of 1812 when ability was taken into account. He was among the first to be promoted based on his ability to Captain a ship.
Despite being court martialed six times by anti-Semites, which Levy lost but won all six on appeal, and an anti-Semitic led Congressional inquiry in 1855, he was given command of the American Mediterranean Squadron in 1859 and earned the promotion to Commodore. This was the equivalent of Admiral today and was the first Jew to receive the prestigious rank.
During his time in the Navy, he fought to bring an end to flogging as a means of punishment. Levy spent years working towards the abolition and succeeded in 1850. That was the year Congress passed what would bring an end to floggings. The first attempt to abolish flogging in the US Navy occurred in 1820 and was defeated. Without Levy’s efforts, it would have continued on and most likely still been in effect during the American Civil War.
Commodore Levy was not only devoted to his country and served honorably throughout his career; he was also a religious Jew. He was one of the more influential members of the Washington Hebrew Congregation. Due to his devotion to God and country, the first Jewish chapel built by the American military was names after him.
Commodore Levy was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson and heard about the poor condition of Monticello. Levy became the third owner after Jefferson’s death and spent much of the wealth he had earned to rebuild Monticello. Despite receiving the deed in 1836, his naval career kept him from spending short periods of time.
When Commodore Levy died in 1862, he made sure his family, friends and Synagogue were taken care of. True to his nature, even in death, Monticello was left to the United States government along with income from his estate to farm the acreage he had owned as part of title for Monticello. The income gained from the farm was to be used to support families of seamen who were lost at sea.
There are those who question Jewish loyalty of those who serve in the United States military. Anyone who does has never studied Jewish history in the United States. From the founding of the country, Jews have served in every war and conflict America has been in and a lot of Jewish blood has been spilled.
Arlington National Cemetery is home to thousands of Jewish heroes who died for their country, the same of Gentiles of other religions. An anti-Semite can point to a single Jew who served without honor and claim the one is representative of the whole. I can point thousands who served with honor and distinction to counter the one.