Uriah Phillips Levy declared himself “an American, a sailor, and a Jew." On his way to achieving the Navy's highest rank of Commodore, Levy faced pirates, a mutinous crew, fought a duel, and was tried in six courts-martial, which led to three dismissals from service. He helped abolish flogging as a means of punishment and as an admirer of Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in saving Monticello from ruins.
Uriah Phillips Levy had no intention of becoming a shopkeeper like his father. That’s why the ten-year-old secretly signed up as a cabin boy and ran away to sea. During his apprenticeship he faced French pirates, was shipwrecked, and taken aboard a British man-of-war. The captain was so impressed with him that he offered Uriah a British commission. Levy politely refused explaining that his loyalty was to his country. (Later when Emperor Dom Pedro asked Levy to captain a new sixty-gun frigate in the Imperial Brazilian Navy, he replied, “I would rather serve as a cabin boy in the United States Navy than hold the rank of Admiral in any other service in the world.”)
During the War of 1812, Levy was captured and spent sixteen months as a prisoner of war. When he returned home, Uriah continued his service in the navy. His patriotism led him to defend President Andrew Jackson and to become the only American to donate a full-size statue (President Thomas Jefferson) to the United States government. Uriah purchased Jefferson’s run-down estate to preserve it. This would remain in the Levy family far longer than the Jefferson family. (His mother, Rachel Phillips Levy, is buried at Monticello.)
When the Commission of Fifteen determined him unfit for active duty, he fought back. His trial and his fifty-three Christian and Jewish witnesses put anti-Semitism in the forefront. Once returned to active duty, Uriah Levy became the first Jewish flag officer in the U.S. Navy.