Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The Levys of Monticello

Jefferson Monroe Levy would find it bizarre that campus radicals would now accuse his Jewish family of benefiting from “white privilege.” According the socially “respected” jew-haters of his day, he was far too “oriental” to retain ownership of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Yet, the Levy family were much more responsible custodians than the other interim owners, a flaky WASP and the CSA. The Levys spent hundreds of thousands of 19th Century Dollars to restore and maintain the historically significant property, but for years, they were written out of Monticello’s history. Filmmaker Steven Pressman and his on-camera historians set the record straight in The Levys of Monticello, which releases Friday on VOD.

Have no fear, Pressman’s talking heads do not try to sweep Jefferson’s slave ownership under the rug. They discuss it immediately and frequently return to the point throughout the film. Rather awkwardly, Commodore Uriah P. Levy also owned slaves, as did James Turner Barclay, the schemer who bought Monticello from the Jefferson estate and sold it (at a loss) to the Naval officer. However, the CSA eventually confiscated Monticello, because Levy remained loyal to the Union, at great personal cost.

He also abolished flogging in the U.S. Navy and constantly battled antisemitism amongst the senior officer corps. Perhaps reasonable people could agree that all aspects of his complex record should be taken into consideration before passing final judgement. Nevertheless, Levy’s living ancestors still feel compelled to apologize for him.

As an on-again off-again New York Congressman, who regained ownership on Monticello in 1879, Jefferson Monroe Levy did not share the slave-holding sins of Monticello’s past owners. Not surprisingly, the estate fell into a dangerous state of disrepair while the Confederacy held it, so Rep. Levy was forced to spend another not-so small fortune on repairs. Yet, Maud Littleton, a busybody hater and Congressional wife nearly convinced Congress to wrest Monticello from him, because he was Jewish. If she were around today, she could probably find a teaching position at Harvard or CUNY.

Frankly, the Levys are an incredible American family, so it is deeply depressing Pressman and company are not more willing to celebrate their legacy. Arguably, both Uriah P. and Jefferson Monroe were quite progressive for their eras and milieus. Some of Pressman’s historians even give them credit for launching the practice of historic preservation as we now know it.

Pressman certainly criticizes the Jew-hatred the Levy family faced, drawing parallels with the Charlottesville riot. Obviously, this documentary was produced before October 2023. Since then, we can see hate marches every day in New York. It is profoundly sad to think how tenaciously the Levy family fought Judeophobia while devotedly serving their country. Yet, it is just as virulent today, if not more so.

The Levys of Monticello
is a greatly needed at this current moment. It provides some highly relevant history, but its timidly apologetic tone limits its effectiveness. Still recommended for re-asserting the Levys’ place in American history, The Levys of Monticello releases this Friday (11/24) on VOD.