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Remembering the Jews of Monticello

by Robert Leiter

On the day of his death - July 4, 1826, the nation's 50th birthday - Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, was exactly $107,273.63 in debt.

Much of this debt had been incurred during the creation of his spectacular home, Monticello, which he designed and built in the foothills of his beloved Blue Ridge Mountains in Central Virginia - and where, at age 83, he lay on his deathbed.

Monticello was an expression of Jefferson's multitude of interests, befitting this first of American Renaissance man. He is said to have fine-tuned the design for years, and once it was completed, he proceeded to decorate the interior with art works, an extensive and splendid library (what would become the heart of the Library of Congress), and furnishings of the highest quality. He supervised work on the grounds as well - also judged to be extremely well-planned - where he indulged his passion for botany, agriculture, forestry, viticulture and landscape architecture. The grounds were, in fact, likened to an "ornamental working farm."

But the debt had also mounted, thanks to Jefferson's renowned generosity. His wife, Martha, had died in 1782 but his grown children, their children, his sisters and their children, along with assorted other relatives and friends, tended to spend long periods of time at Monticello, especially after 1815. It seemed that Jefferson could turn no one away, and he was said to be a gracious host.

It caused him great anguish as he waited for death to arrive that his heirs, to satisfy his many creditors, would have to sell his beloved creation and all of the surrounding property, even possibly the spot where he was to be buried.

Without proper funds and guidance, his single surviving daughter and her son could not maintain the grand house and grounds, and so they fell into other less caring hands and into considerable disrepair.

According to author Marc Leepson, it was only through the persistence of Uriah Levy, the first Jewish American to make a career as a U.S. naval officer, along with the subsequent efforts of his nephew, that Monticello was returned to its original glory. Levy's nephew, however, the appropriately named Jefferson Monroe Levy, was rewarded for all his monumental efforts with a national campaign, rife with anti-Semitic overtones, to wrest the house from him.

THE FIGHT TO SAVE A HOME

Leepson contends that his new book, Saving Monticello, published by The Free Press, is the first work to tell the full story of the Levy family's dogged and courageous fight to save Jefferson's brilliant "essay in architecture." It is remarkable that in the 175 years or so since the great man's demise that no one else thought to tell this inspiring story, which is just the right book to read in celebration of American virtues, foremost among them independence itself.

The tale Leepson tells is filled with truly outsized characters, not the least of them Navy Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, a native of Philadelphia. But Monticello's saga begins long before Levy appeared on the scene. Following the president's death, his only surviving daughter, Martha Jefferson Randolph, and her son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, known to all simply as "Jeff," strapped with inherited debt, did their best to maintain some sense of order at the grand house, but Leepson describes it as an "unbearable burden."

The family put the house and grounds up for sale after several years of struggle, only to find that no one wanted this "priceless architectural masterpiece," a work that would eventually become a revered icon to millions. It took years - and not before all the furniture and furnishings had been sold and significant decay had set in - until the first of Monticello's post-Jefferson owners stepped up to the plate. James Turner Barclay was a Charlottesville druggist who bought the property and 552 acres for all of $7,000.

Leepson shows that, while the Barclay family tried to put a positive spin on their family's less than three-year stewardship at Monticello, James Barclay, in fact, contributed mightily to the decomposition of the house and grounds. An earlier biography of Uriah Levy states that Barclay brought the property not to preserve it "as a shrine to Jefferson," but to indulge in a "fanciful experiment - a grandiose plan to grow mulberry trees and start a silkworm business. He dug up the flower gardens and cut down most of the fine trees on the lawn - the poplar, linden and copper beeches on which Jefferson had expended so much money and care ... . So began the despoliation of the most beautiful house in America."

What happened to Barclay after Monticello is worth mentioning. He and his wife were Presbyterians who converted to Campbell's Disciples of Christ. In 1840, they packed up the family - they had three young children then - to do missionary work in Palestine. After their return, Barclay wrote a 627-page history of Jerusalem, published in 1858.

How Uriah Levy came to be the next owner of Monticello is shrouded in mystery, according to Leepson. What is known is that Levy and Barclay signed their first contract on April 1, 1834. The sale did not actually occur until two years later, as there was "a disagreement between the two parties about acreage and contents of the house." Eventually, they settled on a fee of $2,700, for which Levy received Monticello and its "apertenaces," and 230 acres of land.

Levy had made a fortune in real estate in addition to his rather colorful career in the Navy, where he waged a successful campaign to ban flogging. As the owner of a much-reduced Monticello, his fortune came in quite handy, and he set to work almost immediately, righting the wrongs that had been done the house. Eventually, he opened the mountaintop estate to visitors who came to pay homage to Jefferson's memory and greatness.

But all of Levy's good work was undone during the Civil War, when the house fell into the hands of Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, who detested the fact that this grand building was owned by a Northerner. But he had no respect for the property - cattle was housed on the first floor and grain in the upper rooms.

It was not until Uriah's nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, came on the scene that the Monticello we know today became a reality. In fact, the Levys owned the property far longer than any of the Jeffersons.

Jewish World Review July 3, 2002, Robert Leiter




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