Thomas Jefferson sometimes argued that the earth belonged to the living and that each generation owed little to those before or after it. At times he lived his own life that way. Fortunately his heirs had different views.
When Jefferson died in 1826, he left over $100,000 in debts, badly encumbering the next generation of his family. They were forced to sell most of his eclectic collection of furniture and artwork, hundreds of acres of his estate, and, in 1831, his beloved home itself, Monticello. Jefferson had designed Monticello with his own hands; he called it his “essay in architecture,” and it was full of the Greek, French, and Roman influences that had shaped his political philosophy. Franklin Roosevelt would later say he had never seen a historic home that was such a perfect expression of the personality of its builder.
It was an aspect of Jefferson’s legacy that would ultimately save the historic house. Uriah Levy was the first Jew to serve a career as an officer in the United States Navy, and he had gone on to a successful career in real-estate speculation. A passionate believer in the freedom of religion that America had offered his family, he was grateful to Jefferson for the role he had played in extending that landmark liberty.
After his acquaintance the Marquis de Lafayette inquired about Jefferson’s home, Levy found that it was in disrepair. In 1836 he bought and restored it as a tribute to its creator. Upon Uriah’s death his family lost control of the estate, and the house again deteriorated. The not-accidentally named Jefferson Levy, Uriah’s nephew, regained possession in 1879. The younger Levy was also a successful speculator, and a three-term New York congressman. He put hundreds of thousands of dollars into restoring the house to its former glory.
In all, the Levy family owned the home for nearly 90 years—far longer than Jefferson himself. They eventually transferred the structure to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation to preserve it indefinitely. Since 1923 the private nonprofit foundation has operated the home as a museum, historic site, and research center—a testament to the way generations should honor those who come before and after.
- Marc Leepson, Saving Monticello: The Levy Family’s Epic Quest to Rescue the House that Jefferson Built (University of Virginia Press, 2003)
- Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, monticello.org