Last week, a statue of Thomas Jefferson was removed from the council chamber in New York’s city hall, where it has stood since 1915. The statue is a painted plaster model used by the French sculptor Pierre-Jean David d’Angers when he created an identical bronze likeness, which now sits in the Capitol rotunda. In 1833, Uriah P. Levy commissioned the sculpture, and the next year brought both it and the model to the U.S. Jonathan Sarna tells the story of this Jewish naval veteran, who intended the statute “to serve as a symbol of religious liberty.”
Jefferson, for all of his blindness concerning the evils of slavery, championed religious liberty in Virginia and in the nation as a whole. . . . And he specifically championed the rights of Jews. He expressed pride that the University of Virginia, whose founding he considered one of his supreme achievements, both accepted Jews and “set the example of ceasing to violate the rights of conscience by any injunctions on the different sects respecting their religion.” . . . Mr. Levy, like many Jews, honored him for that.
Born in 1792 into one of America’s leading Jewish families, Levy ran away from home as a boy of ten; a decade later he entered the U.S. Navy, hoping to serve in the War of 1812. He briefly fell into British hands. When freed, he was awarded an independent naval command. His unorthodox path to power was resented by his fellow officers. They thought that a naval commander should be better bred.
They also resented him for being a Jew. Indeed his faith cost him, again and again. In 1816 one such dispute with a fellow officer escalated from epithets to fisticuffs and then, finally a duel. Only Mr. Levy walked away. Over the next 30 years, Mr. Levy would be court martialed six times, each for responding to anti-Semitic slights.
Statues can convey multiple messages, as can historical memory. Rather than choosing between the memory of racial injustice and the embrace of religious liberty, let the d’Angers statue serve as a reminder that Jefferson embodied both at once—as did Mr. Levy. Pondering the many complexities and contradictions inherent in their lives may offer valuable lessons concerning our own.