COLUMN: The Jefferson statue

There was a time when a bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson stood on the north side (Pennsylvania Avenue) of the White House lawn. It is no longer there. What is the story?

The donor

This tale really begins with Uriah Levy (1792-1862) who commissioned this statue because he has such affection and admiration for Jefferson and for his dedication to religious liberty. And with good cause. Levy was a descendant of Jews who had fled the Inquisition in Portugal and had founded and settled in Savannah, Georgia. He faced anti-Semitism all his life.

From the age of 10, Levy spent his time in and around boats, finally joining the Navy to fight in the War of 1812. He was court-martialed six times; kicked out of the Navy twice but reinstated by presidents who no doubt saw that charges against him were false. He commanded an undisciplined crew aboard the USS Vandalia in the Gulf of Mexico in 1838 but won them over by doing away with flogging. The Navy banned flogging in 1850.

Levy became wealthy through real estate. In the 1820s, he purchased some rooming houses on Manhattan Island; a year later the area became part of the city called Greenwich Village. His money gave him the ability to commission a statue of Thomas Jefferson and to purchase (in 1836) Monticello, a residence in terrible condition. But that’s another story.

The sculptor and statue

Back to the Jefferson statue — Levy intended this statue to be an inspiration to all who saw it in the US Capitol. He commissioned Pierre-Jean David d’Angers, a French artist who could capture the qualities of illustrious figures.

Completed in 1834, this life-size bronze shows Jefferson with quill pen in his right hand and a copy of the Declaration of Independence in his left hand. The words on the document are legible.

But Congress was not sure it wanted this statue; while the precise reason remains a mystery, it grudgingly allowed the statue to be displayed in various sites in the Capitol. Then in 1847 (to continue the mystery) the statue was moved from the Capitol to the White House north lawn.

While the public may have liked seeing the Jefferson bronze, the weather was not kind to it. Within a few years, it lost its luster and became dark. Tending to it properly was not in the scheme.

In 1874 Uriah’s brother Jonas Levy wrote to the Congress reminding them that his brother had donated the statue so it could be displayed in the Capitol. And if this did not to happen, the family wanted it back. (Where was the statue at this time? Presumably it was still on the White House lawn.)

A month later, both Houses passed a resolution formally accepting the statue. It was then placed in Statuary Hall and, in 1900, moved to the Rotunda, where it remains.

Phyllis Young lives in Lawton and writes a column for The Lawton Constitution.

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