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

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

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:

  • 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

For details on other upcoming events, go to That’s the Author Events page on my website,

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 I also have a few as new, unopened hardcover copies. Or go to 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.