In honor of the anniversary of the founding of the United States Navy in 1794, which is tomorrow, March 27th, Jewish Treats presents a biography of Uriah P. Levy, the U.S.’s first Jewish commodore. Today is Levy’s yahrtzeit on both the Jewish and the Gregorian Calendar.
Born in Philadelphia in 1792, Levy took to the seas early (some sources report that he was 10 and that he returned home for his Bar Mitzvah, others indicate that he was 14) when he signed on as a cabin boy. Levy joined the navy when he was barely 20. His military skills were immediately put to the test as the United States entered the War of 1812 against England. While Levy’s early assignments kept him on the Atlantic seaboard, he joined the crew of the Europe-bound U.S.S. Argus in 1813. When the Argus captured the British “Betty,” Levy was made Acting Lieutenant and put in charge of the valuable prize ship. Unfortunately, in August 1813, the Betty was captured by the British, and Levy remained a prisoner until December 1814.
Not surprisingly for the era, Levy’s career was sometimes jeopardized by fellow officers who disliked him because he was Jewish. Additionally, Levy faced animosity due to his outspoken opinion against flogging. (He is considered the father of the anti-flogging bill that was passed in 1850.) In 1857, Levy was “downsized” along with 48 other officers but, after appealing his dismissal, was reinstated. Shortly thereafter he was given command of the Mediterranean fleet.
|“I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.”
Outside of the navy, Levy made many successful New York real estate investments and was well-known for having purchased and restored Thomas Jefferson’s historic Monticello estate. Levy was also a philanthropist who took particular interest in Jewish causes.
Levy was the first president of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and an active member of New York’s Shearith Israel Congregation. He passed away on March 26, 1862.
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