Commodore Uriah Levy once stated the following statement about religious freedom:
“My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors. In deciding to adhere to it, I have but exercised a right guaranteed to me by the Constitution of my State and the United States, a right given to all men by their Maker. But, while claiming this right, I have ever accorded it to all men, and, as an officer of the Navy, I have treated each and every one as a man and never as a partisan or sectarian.”
Uriah Phillips Levy was born into a Jewish family from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 22, 1792. His grandfather, Jonas Phillips, moved to the United States from Germany in 1756, and fought against the British during the American Revolution. At the age of ten, Levy left home to serve as a cabin boy on a trading ship. He returned home to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah with his family, though he quickly returned to the sea soon afterward.
Levy eventually joined the U.S. Navy, where he became a sailing master. He first saw battle in the Barbary Wars, and then again, during the War of 1812, aboard the USS Argus. After taking 20 ships, the Argus herself was captured on August 14, 1813, and the surviving crew, including Levy, were sent to Dartmoor Prison in England. Levy remained a prisoner there for sixteen months. After his release, Levy returned to the U.S. and continued to serve in the Navy, rising to the ranks of Lieutenant (1817), Master Commandant (1837), and Captain (1844).
After witnessing flogging in the Navy firsthand, Levy joined those who opposed corporal punishment. In 1838, as commander of the USS Vandalia, he developed his own system of discipline, substituting mild reforms for corporal punishment. Because of his refusal to inflict corporal punishment on a young seaman, he was court-martialed and dismissed from the service. That dismissal was eventually overturned by President John Tyler. Levy became an outspoken opponent of flogging aboard ships, publishing articles, giving lectures, and publicly advocating to Congress to outlaw it. The practice first was limited in 1850, and then banned in 1862, due in quite significant measure to his efforts, making the U.S. Navy the first military organization in the world to abolish physical punishment.
Over his career, Levy faced significant anti-Semitism. He was, in fact, courts-martialed six separate times; several after fights directly provoked by anti-Semitic comments, including once killing a man in a duel. All charges were eventually overturned. In 1855, after years of requesting a ship’s commission, he was informed of his dismissal from the Navy once again. However, he fought the decision through a Congressional Court of Inquiry, and was reinstated in 1858. He was then given command of the USS Macedonian, and soon after, became the flag officer of the Mediterranean fleet; receiving the rank of Commodore, then the highest ranking in the Navy, with the current rank equivalent of Admiral. He was stateside when the Civil War broke out, and he pleaded with President Lincoln to be brought back into active duty. Eventually, and perhaps ironically, he was tasked with heading the Navy’s Court Martial Board.
Commodore Levy died on March 22, 1862 and was buried in Cong. Shearith Israel’s Beth Olom cemetery in Queens, NY. While he had no children, he did leave behind many legacies. An ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson, Levy purchased Monticello, the late President’s estate, in 1836, and publicly announced that he intended to restore the property to its original condition and open it for visitation. The house and grounds remained in the Levy family until the estate was sold to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in 1923.
A statue of Thomas Jefferson commissioned by Levy stands today in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. A destroyer escort was named the USS Levy (DE-162); it received 5 battle stars for its service in the Pacific theater of WWII. In 1959, the Navy’s oldest Jewish Chapel located at Naval Station Norfolk was renamed the Commodore Levy Chapel in honor of Levy’s dedication to his religion and his country, and in 2003, the rebuilt Jewish chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy was named for him as well. In December 2011, a statue of Levy was unveiled outside of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, where Levy had his bar mitzvah in 1805. A plaque on the synagogue quotes the American hero’s simple but fiery words borne of a lifetime of proud service:
“I am an American, a sailor, and a Jew.”
Originally published in the Tishrei 2020 issue of the Jewish American Warrior.