Thursday, March 2, 2017

March 2017

Saving Monticello: The Newsletter

The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XIV, Number 3                                                                     March 1, 2017


JONAS LEVY & LAFAYETTE: As I was searching through the Library of Congress’s digital newspaper collection the other day, I happened upon the obituary of Jonas Phillips Levy, a younger brother of Uriah Levy and the father of Jefferson Monroe Levy, the two men who are at the heart of Saving Monticello.

Jonas Levy, who had a long career as a sailor and private ship captain (along with a stint in the U.S. Navy during the Mexican War), has a substantial supporting role in the book. He actively worked to keep Monticello in the family after it was confiscated by the Confederacy during the Civil War and also led the effort to have the statue of Jefferson that his brother commissioned and donated to the nation be prominently displayed in the U.S. Capitol. Plus a few other things.



In the Sept. 15, 1883, New York Times obit, I noticed something that hadn’t made an impression on me when I wrote the book: the claim that when Jonas Phillips was 17 years old in 1824, he “escorted [the Marquis de] Lafayette on board the ship Cadman, about to sail from France to this country” for what be the Revolutionary War hero’s monumental Farewell Tour of the United States.

The obit goes on to say that “the following November” Jonas “rescued Gen. Lafayette from the sinking steamer Oliver Branch on the Mississippi River. In recognition of that service Gen. Lafayette presented him with his signet ring.”

I was unaware that Jonas Levy “escorted” Lafayette to his ship. Nor had I read that Lafayette was rescued from a sinking ship in the Mississippi in November 1824. Surely, I thought, I would have come across the ship sinking when I did the research for Lafayette: Idealist General, my 2011 concise biography of the famed Marquis.

I decided to do a bit of history detective work.

First, I emailed Alan Hoffman, a prominent member of the American Friends of Lafayette and the editor of the unabridged, English version of Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825: Journal of a Voyage to the United States, the detailed journal written by Lafayette’s private secretary Auguste Levasseur during the trip and later published in French.

I figured no one knows more about Lafayette’s Farewell Tour than Alan. He got back to me right away, and said it was possible that Jonas Levy may have been on Captain Francis Allen’s Cadmus crew, and added that there weren’t a lot of passengers on that packet ship’s journey across the Atlantic.



Jonas saving the Marquis during a shipwreck on the Mississippi, though, most likely never happened, Alan said. He pointed out that a steamship Lafayette was on in April and May of 1824 sunk in the Ohio River. But there was nothing in Levasseur’s detailed journal about any such incident on the Mississippi.

My next step was to re-read the photocopy of a transcribed version of an unpublished memoir Jonas Levy wrote in 1877. His great granddaughter, Harley Lewis (a grandniece of Jefferson Levy), had kindly given me the copy while I was researching Saving Monticello. I found Jonas Levy’s account of his life in 1824-25, which said he was working as a carpenter on river boats in the U.S.A. early in 1824. He shipped out on a merchant ship called the Julius Cross delivering cotton to Liverpool in March. That trip took 45 days, he wrote.

After arriving in England, Jonas wrote that he stayed in Liverpool “to see the sights for several weeks,” then shipped back to New York on the Pacific of the Black Balleine. He did not mention anything about going to France in July; nor did he mention the name “Lafayette.”

As far as rescuing the Marquis in November of 1824, if it happened, Jonas Levy didn’t bother to mention it in his memoir. After returning from his England trip, he wrote, Jonas shipped out as a carpenter on the Partia for Chile and Peru, arriving in December 1824. So, according to the memoir, Jonas Levy was at sea in South America when he was supposed to be rescuing Lafayette on the Mississippi.
I guess you could call that info in his 1883 obituary a bit of late 19th century fake news.

SALLY HEMINGS’ ROOM: Significant—and good—changes are about to take place in the interpretation of Sally Hemings’ role at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. As a front-page article in the February 19 Washington Post reported, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation is in the process of restoring a room below Monticello’s South Wing where it is believed that Sally Hemings slept. In 1941, the Foundation had turned the long disused and neglected room into a public bathroom.
The restored room, complete with furniture and other artifacts, will be open to the public in 2018. 

“It’s part of a $35 million restoration project that will bolster Monticello’s infrastructure,” the article said, “but also reconstruct and showcase buildings where enslaved people lived and worked.

“Visitors will come up here and understand that there was no place on this mountaintop that slavery wasn’t,” said Christa Dierksheide, a Foundation historian. “Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by people, and the vast majority of those people were enslaved.”

To read the entire article, go to http://bit.ly/HemingsChange

EVENTS: My next book, the first-ever biography of Barry Sadler, will be published May 1. For more info on Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GBBallad

Two events in March:
  • Tuesday, March 7 - 2:00 p.m. talk on What So Proudly We Hailed, my 2014 bio of Francis Scott Key, and book signing for the Warrenton (Va.) Antiquarian Society at the Visitors Center in downtown Warrenton. It's free and open to the public. More info at:  http://bit.ly/WarrAntiquarians

  • Thursday, March 23 – 10:00 a.m. talk on What So Proudly We Hailed and Flag: An American Biography and book signing for the University of Mary Washington ElderStudy group at the Stafford (Va.) campus.


If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including What So Proudly We Hailed, Lafayette: Idealist General, and Ballad of the Green Beret (starting in May)—please email me at marc527psc@aol.com

For details on other upcoming events, go to bit.ly/SMOnline That’s the Author Events page on my website, www.marcleepson.com


Facebook, Twitter: If you’re on Facebook, please send me a friend request. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to have you as a follower.

Gift IdeasIf you would like a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello, e-mail me at Marc527psc@aol.com I also have a few as new, unopened hardcover copies. Or go to marcleepson.com/signedbooks.html to order copies through my local bookstore, Second Chapter Books in Middleburg, Virginia. We also have copies of Desperate Engagement, Flag, Lafayette, and What So Proudly We Hailed.  





Thursday, February 2, 2017

February 2017


Saving Monticello: The Newsletter

The latest about the book, author events, and more
Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XIV, Number 2                                                                     February 1, 2017

TOOTHSOME VIANDS: A hundred years ago, in the early winter of 1917, the U.S. Congress was making its last attempt to purchase Monticello from Jefferson Levy.

The movement to have the federal government buy Monticello from Levy—who had owned it since 1879 and had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars repairing, restoring, and furnishing the home (and re-acquiring significant acreage)—had begun in 1912 when Maude Littleton launched a national campaign to take Monticello from Jefferson Levy to become a  shrine to Thomas Jefferson 
Bills to do that had been introduced in Congress beginning in 1912, accompanied by bombastic hearings in which Jefferson Levy staunchly defended his ownership of the house to fight the proposed government takeover. They went nowhere for five years, even after Levy agreed in 1914 to sell the house and grounds and all the furnishings to the government for $500,000.

As I wrote in Saving Monticello, the Senate Committee on Public Buildings on Grounds held a hearing on January 9, 1917, on a new Monticello resolution. This one called for the government to purchase Monticello for Levy’s asking price, and use it as a Virginia getaway for U.S. presidents, what Camp David in Maryland is now.  

On Sunday morning, January 28, 1917, a remarkable event took place. A party of 40 men and 27 women—including many members of the House Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds and their wives—boarded two special Southern Railway cars for the train trip from Washington to Charlottesville. 

A delegation from the local Chamber of Commerce met party at the Charlottesville train station and whisked them up to snow-covered Monticello in two dozen automobiles. The lead vehicle was decorated with two huge American flags.

The group gathered on Monticello’s east lawn to take in the mountain views and then proceeded to the front steps where Jefferson M. Levy and his Charlottesville neighbor, Miriam Boocock, greeted them. The guests took a guided tour of all of Monticello's rooms before sitting down to a lavish lunch in the dining room. Levy brought in a phalanx of waiters and maids—all African Americans—for the occasion.



 “The spread set out by the genial host of today was in keeping with the traditional hospitality of the famous mansion,” the Charlottesville Daily Progress, in an article headlined “Gay Party at Monticello,” reported. “An elegant menu was served the many guests, whose appetites had been whetted by the three-mile drive in the bracing mountain air, and they did full justice to the elegant and toothsome viands which had been provided.” Several newspaper and newsreel photographers were on hand. Sadly, the images they took have not survived. (The image above was taken around that time.)

The visit was not a success. The problem was Jefferson Levy’s refusal to serve wine with lunch. When the congressmen and newspapermen asked Levy to show them Jefferson’s wine cellar, Levy balked, saying he had “left the keys in New York,” the Roanoke Times reported. That brought about “much grumbling” from the distinguished guests, the paper said, “and it was freely rumored that Mr. Levy would have to materially reduce his offer below $500,000 if he expected Congress to buy the old Jefferson home.”

Whether or not that last line was tongue in cheek—or the lack of wine had any impact on Congress—Levy did not reduce his offer. Congress adjourned on March 3, 1917, without taking action on any of the Monticello resolutions. When the U.S. entered the First World War in April, the matter was dropped in Congress and never would be taken up again. Levy sold Monticello for his asking price to the newly formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923.

SIX HOURS & TWO MINUTES: Of course there is a website called “how long to read this” dot com. I came across it recently and timed myself (with the handy timer on the page) as I read the Saving Monticello dust jacket copy. Then after a click, the site told me:

“You read 531 words in 141 seconds and your reading speed is 225 words per minute. It will take you 6 hours and 2 minutes to complete Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built.” I’m a fairly slow reader, so I’m guessing most folks can read the book in under six hours. A good use of one’s time, I would say.

To take the test, go to http://bit.ly/SMreadtime Feel free to email me with your results—and comments.

WRONG CENTURY: In last month’s newsletter I wrote that historic Mikveh Israel synagogue, where the Phillips and Levy families worshiped in Philadelphia, was founded in 1840. I was off only by a hundred years, as several SM newsletter subscribers kindly reported.

Mikveh Israel, which bills itself as the “Synagogue of the American Revolution,” dates its founding from the 1740 establishment of its cemetery, making it the oldest formal congregation in Philadelphia. Its first building dates to 1792. Mikveh Israel is the third oldest congregation in the U.S., behind Shearith Israel in New York City (founded in 1654), Mickve Israel in Savannah (founded by, among others, Uriah Levy’s great-great grandfather Samuel Nunez in 1733), and Touro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island, which has the oldest actual building, which dates from 1758.
Members of the Nunez and Levy families, including Uriah Levy and his nephew Louis Napoleon Levy, also worshiped, and were active in, Shearith Israel in New York.

Apologies for the error.



OLD FRIENDS: After last month’s newsletter went out, I received a gracious email from Dan Jordan, the former head of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Dan had provided Monticello’s full and much-needed support when I was researching and writing Saving Monticello in 1999 and 2000. Now semi-retired, Dan told me he was thrilled to read that I was in contact with Harley Lewis, the Levy descendant whom I mentioned in the newsletter. They had formed a bond when Dan took over as the Foundation’s head in 1984 and immediately set out to give the Levy family the recognition it deserved for saving Monticello on two different occasions.  

This newsletter is a labor of love and I’m happy to report that it helped Dan and Harley connect by email for the first time in many years.

EVENTS: My next book, the first-ever biography of Barry Sadler, will be published May 1. For more info on Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GBBallad

One event in February:
  • Tuesday, February 7, 1:30 p.m. talk on Saving Monticello and book signing for the Woman’s Club of McLean in northern Virginia



If you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including What So Proudly We Hailed, Lafayette: Idealist General, and the Barry Sadler bio (starting in May)—please email me at marc527psc@aol.com

For details on other upcoming events, go to bit.ly/SMOnline That’s the “Author Events” page on my website, www.marcleepson.com


Facebook, Twitter: If you’re on Facebook, please send me a friend request. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to have you as a follower.

Gift IdeasIf you would like a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello, e-mail me at Marc527psc@aol.com Or go to marcleepson.com/signedbooks.html to order copies through my local bookstore, Second Chapter Books in Middleburg, Virginia. We also have copies of Desperate Engagement, Flag, Lafayette, and What So Proudly We Hailed.   

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

January 2017



Saving Monticello: The Newsletter

The latest about the book, author events, and more

Newsletter Editor - Marc Leepson

Volume XIV, Number 1                                                            January 1, 2017

JONAS PHILLIPS: The website Jewoftheweek.com devoted its mid-December page to Jonas Phillips, Uriah Phillips Levy’s beloved grandfather, and a remarkable man. Phillips is best known for his Revolutionary War patriotism and his dedication to securing full religious freedom for Jews in the new nation he fought to create.


As I wrote in Saving Monticello, he was born Jonah Phaibush in 1735 in Busek, a village in Prussia. He left Prussia in 1756 at age twenty-one to seek his fortune in the American colonies, stopping in England, and then arriving in Charleston, South Carolina. Along the way he Anglicized his names to Jonas Phillips.

A few years later Jonas Phillips moved to Albany, New York, where he became a Freemason and opened a store in which he sold food and spirits. Jonas Phillips left Albany in 1761, married Rebecca Machado a year later, and settled in New York City where he again owned and operated a retail store. He also was an auctioneer and served the Jewish community as a shohet (ritual slaughterer) and bodek (meat examiner). Jonas Phillips became a naturalized citizen in April 1771. Around 1774 he moved his growing family to Philadelphia where he opened a “vendue store” at the upper end of Third Street.

Swept up in the revolutionary fervor in New York and Philadelphia in the 1770s, Jonas Phillips spoke out publicly on British abuses of colonists’ rights. He signed a letter published in the January 23, 1770, New York Gazette supporting the strongly anti-British Non Importation Resolutions of 1765. He also participated in running the British blockade of Philadelphia. On October 31, 1778, at age 43, Jonas Phillips became a private in Capt. John Linton’s Company of Col. William Bradford’s Battalion, a Philadelphia militia unit in the Continental Army.

His most famous public religious act was the September 7, 1787, letter Jonas Phillips wrote to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Identifying himself as “one of the people called Jews of the City of Philadelphia,” he called on the body to include provisions in the Constitution they were writing to provide “all men” the “natural and unalienable Right to worship almighty God according to their own Conscience and understanding.”

He also was instrumental in raising funds to purchase a new building for the Mikveh Israel synagogue in Philadelphia in 1782. Jonas Phillips later was elected the president of that historic Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, which had been established in 1740. As the head of the congregation, he invited George Washington to attend the dedication ceremonies of its new building.
Jonas Phillips died in Philadelphia on January 29, 1803. 

He and Rebecca Phillips had 21 children, and many more grandchildren, including Uriah Phillips Levy. Uriah inherited his grandfather’s patriotism and love of the sea, running away from home at age ten to be a cabin boy on a ship. He joined the Navy when he was twenty years old, and served heroically in the War of 1812. He went on to a fifty-year Navy career (the first Jewish-American to do so), and achieved the rank of Commodore, then the highest in the Navy.

Uriah Levy also purchased Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1834, and repaired, restored and preserved that American architectural treasure.


THE FIRST JEWISH AMERICANS: I was delighted to get an email from Harley Lewis, a grandniece of Uriah Levy’s nephew Jefferson Levy, who owed Monticello from 1879-1923. Mrs. Lewis was extremely helpful to me when I was doing the research for Saving Monticello, and has been one of the book’s most enthusiastic supporters.

She told me she had read the item in the December newsletter about the First Jewish Americans exhibit at the New York Historical Society Museum and Library. Mrs. Lewis, who just turned 91, went on to say that she took in the exhibit with her sons and one of her grandchildren and found it “very interesting.” Uriah Levy’s “full-length portrait [above] was very exciting to see,” she said, noting that she had seen the painting at its previous homes, the Jewish Chapel at the Norfolk Naval Station, and the museum at the U.S. Naval Academy.

For more info on the exhibit, go to http://bit.ly/2NYHistSoc

EVENTS:  My next book, the first-ever biography of Barry Sadler, will be published May 1. For more info on Ballad of the Green Beret, go to http://bit.ly/GBBallad


One event in January:
  • Sunday, January 29, 1:30 p.m. talk on What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life , and book signing at the Manassas Museum, 9101 Prince Street in Manassas, Virginia. The talk is free and open to the public. For more info, go to http://bit.ly/ManassasMusee

Please email if you’d like to arrange an event for Saving Monticello—or for any of my other books, including What So Proudly We Hailed, Lafayette: Idealist General, and the Barry Sadler bio (starting in May)—please email me at marc527psc@aol.com

For details on other upcoming events, go to bit.ly/SMOnline That’s the “Author Events” page on my website, www.marcleepson.com



 Facebook, Twitter: If you’re on Facebook, please send me a friend request. If you’re on Twitter, I’d love to have you as a follower.

Gift IdeasIf you would like a personally autographed, brand-new paperback copy of Saving Monticello, e-mail me at Marc527psc@aol.com Or go to marcleepson.com/signedbooks.html to order copies through my local bookstore, Second Chapter Books in Middleburg, Virginia. We also have copies of Desperate Engagement, Flag, Lafayette, and What So Proudly We Hailed.