What We Are Missing in the Debate Around NYC City Hall’s Jefferson Statue?

Recently the New York Times and other news outlets reported that a seven-foot-tall statue of Thomas Jefferson will soon be removed from the New York City Council chamber. City officials unanimously voted for its removal, citing Jefferson’s slaveholding history.

Lost in the conversation is the little-known genesis of the statue.

The sculpture was commissioned by the first Jewish commodore in the United States Navy— Uriah Phillips Levy — a man who for decades, at his own expense, worked to save Jefferson’s dilapidated historic home Monticello from ruin. Levy, who faced anti-Semitism throughout his naval career, greatly admired Jefferson’s views on religious freedom. The third president wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which serves as the prototype for the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

Levy’s motivation, to celebrate the religious liberty that allowed him a career of military service, is paramount to the sculpture’s intended (and lost) meaning. Levy wrote in a letter, “For his determined stand on the side of religious liberty, I am preparing to personally commission a statue of Jefferson.”

Levy’s desire to recognize Jefferson’s legacy of religious freedom is a vital distinction. It strongly correlates with Levy’s commitment to American values despite the obstacles he faced because of his religio-cultural heritage, and the reciprocal gains America reaped because of Levy’s freedom to serve his country. Levy fought in the War of 1812, where he and his crew were taken prisoner by the British and held in captivity for 16 months. He also spearheaded the banning of flogging in the Navy.

But if a statue of Jefferson is up for relocation then should we rethink the location for the country’s largest equestrian monument, which honors Ulysses S. Grant? In view of the US Capitol building, the statue memorializes the man who issued a deplorable decree that expelled all Jews “as a class” within 24 hours from districts occupied by the Union army in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Grant’s order, the most anti-Semitic ever issued by the American government, erroneously branded Jews as traitors to the Union, accusing them of black-market profiteering in cotton.

Unquestionably, Grant’s success as the commanding Union general merits celebration, alongside important presidential acts — such as signing into law the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, granting Black men the right to vote.

This commemorative sculpture still stands in its intended location because it has been examined for the context of its creation.

Two proposed locations for Jefferson are the New York Public Library and the New-York Historical Society. Wherever Jefferson is eventually displayed — likely a public venue where many more people will see it — the sculpture should be accurately contextualized. A plaque near it should explicitly honor Jefferson’s critical and too-often forgotten contributions to religious equality while also pointing out his egregious flaws. Levy, too, should be part of that conversation, offering a potent example of an individual who reaped the rewards of Jefferson’s commitment to religious liberty and a country that equally benefited ­— worthy of celebration by Jews and non-Jews alike.

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