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The Compassionate Commodore Levy

Lawrence Bush
September 27, 2017

On this date in 1850, Congress amended a naval appropriations bill to outlaw the flogging of sailors. This began a decade’s worth of legislative maneuvering that would yield a complete ban in 1862. The effort was led by Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish commodore (highest-ranking officer) in the U.S. Navy, who in 1838 had developed his own system of discipline that involved no corporal punishment aboard his ship, the U.S.S. Vandalia. For refusing to flog a sailor, Levy was court-martialed, but President John Tyler overturned the decision. Levy, who was also a vigorous opponent of capital punishment, actually faced six courts-martial in the course of his career (the Navy was not a philosemitic institution), but nevertheless rose to command the Mediterranean fleet. A great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he saved Jefferson’s famous home, Monticello, from liquidation by purchasing it in 1836, with the intention of restoring it as a museum/shrine. Levy’s descendants maintained Monticello for 84 years before turning it over to a public trust.

“Do your duty, boatswain’s mate, or you’ll take his place.” —Standard flogging command

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.