“Uriah Phillips Levy (1792-1862) was one of the first Jewish officers in the United States Navy and a prominent citizen of New York. Circa 1833, Levy privately commissioned Pierre-Jean David D’Angers, France’s most prominent sculptor of the time, to create a statue to memorialize Thomas Jefferson because of legislation Jefferson had introduced establishing religious freedom in the armed forces. Levy presented the bronze statue to Congress as a gift to the American people. It is on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Levy donated the plaster model from which the bronze artwork was made to the people of New York. The model was installed in the Governor’s Room of City Hall circa 1834. It was later moved to the Rotunda of City Hall before being installed in the City Council Chamber in 1915” (nyc.gov). For Levy, it was personal, since he was subject to religious discrimination while in the Navy. He did become the first Jewish commodore in the Navy. Levy also brought Jefferson’s home in Monticello, Virginia, after Jefferson’s death, and restored it to its prior grandeur. Levy was a member of Congregation Shearith Israel and is buried in Beth Olam Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens.
What we see is the Jewish idea of hakaras hatov (acknowledging good deeds) being put into action. There were few Jews in America. There was no great politically-expedient reason for Jefferson to push this legislation, yet he did. Officer Levy could have kept the sculpture or sold it. Instead, he donated it.
It has been proudly displayed in New York City Hall for 187 years. It is unfortunate that the NYC Public Design Commission unanimously voted 8-0 to move the statue.
Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is not tarnished by this vote. A hundred years from now, people will be still discussing the great accomplishments of Jefferson, and those who remove the statute will be relegated to the dustbin of history.
However, the vote is a slap in the face to those who have served in City Hall since 1834. The implication is that there was something inherently wrong for these individuals to have supported placing the statue in City Hall and keeping it there since 1834 when they knew about Jefferson’s background.
It is risky to judge a person who lived 200-250 years ago using today’s standards. Surely, Jefferson engaged in conduct I am sure he would have regretted had he lived today. No person is perfect; you have to look at the totality of a person’s life, including their accomplishments.
There is an irony that Charles Barron first proposed this process when he was in the City Council and it is now again being proposed by his wife Inez. Mr. Barron has a history of racist and antisemitic comments. The ADL has a page on his comments. “…where should we start [the discussion]? Should we start with the 1906 Zionist Convention, or in 1914, with the Balfour Declaration? With Menachem Begin, the terrorists, all the wars, you want to discuss Israel becoming a state in 1948 when it should not have? Who are the terrorists? You want to talk about the definition of terrorism? How do you define acts of piracy?” - Charles Barron during an event at House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn on June 17, 2010. Inez is a supporter of BDS.
I wonder who the City Council members who voted to remove and statue and the commission would have supported if they were contemporaries of Jefferson and living in New York during the American Revolution. I bet they would have been Loyalists. They would have argued against supporting a rebellion led by a bunch of slaveowner Virginians such as George Washington.
Most of the major figures or incidents that led up to the Revolutionary War were either in Massachusetts or Virginia. It was no coincidence that the British captured New York in 1776 and kept control of the city during the war. The conventional wisdom was that the Patriots were going to be easily defeated by the premier empire of the time. In New York it was seen as a safe bet to support Great Britain. They even had a nice sounding name: Loyalists. I can’t envisage that those who didn’t have the courage to stand up to the Barrons of New York and their ilk and give Thomas Jefferson his proper respect would stand up to the British.
Imagine what would have happened if those who are now trashing Jefferson had been in charge back during the time of the American Revolution. I think we would all be singing “G-d save the Queen.”