Saturday, October 21, 2006

William Mallory Levy, Part IV: Character, Controversy and Assessment

Levy may or may not have had Jewish ancestry, but he certainly did not identify in anyway as a Jew. He and his two brothers of whom we have information affiliated with Protestant churches. In a book about Williamsburg during the war, a letter writer mentioned Col. Levy coming "to the Church the day before he left the neighborhood" (Carol Dubbs, "Defend this Old Town: Williamsburg During the Civil War, p. 39). His funeral service was held at Natchitoches' Episcopal Church and he was buried in the "American Cemetery" at a time when Natchitoches had a Jewish community and Jewish cemetery. No contemporary documents, from Virginia or Louisiana that I have found, even those extremely critical of Levy, make any allusion to his supposed Jewish origins. Nor are the researchers I have contacted who are familiar with the history of the Jewish communities of Louisiana and Virginia's Tidewater able to cite any connection between Levy and those communities.

Descriptions of Levy's presence and appearance are glowing. In an otherwise excoriating article, the Times's correspondent wrote that Levy was of “handsome presence, excellent manners, soft and pleasing speech, good education, much law learning, excellent practice, considerable wealth, seemingly popular, a Congressman of unusual distinction for a single term…” (NYT, July 9, 1877). The female letter writer who encountered Levy during his visit to the church at Williamsburg during the war wrote that Levy "made himself very charming- repeating poetry to me- which I really enjoyed" (Dubbs, p. 39)
The Cincinnati Enquirer presented a truly bizarre, over-the-top protrayal. The "attention" of the Enquirer correspondent visiting New Orleans "was arrested by the arrival of a person who seemed to be no less distinguished for his extradordinary physical appearance than his exquisite toilet. He was a six foot individual, with a magnificnet head and handsome face set upon a pair of giant shoulders, a finely-molded body, and the leg of an Apollo Belvedere. He was neatly arrayed in a fashionably-cut black, with white vest and black silk tile [sic.]. A handsomer man I'm sure I never saw." The infatuated correspondent continued, stating that when Levy removed his hat "he exposed a cranium which for ponderousness rivals, if it does not excel, that of Daniel Webster, mounting up in rugged ledges, as it were, until it formed such an intellectual dome as bespoke the mental giant. He chin was exceedingly massive, his just a little sensuous, and a pair of effulgent gold spectacles added brillancy to two already bright eyes, bulging in a manner quite fanciful, but denoting great power of speech. He was just such a man as would be taken for a chief among ten thousand." The breathless correspondent learned that Levy was "the wheelhorse of Democracy in this latitude." He was a lawyer and had "amassed a fortune." "His pretensions have always been of an aristocratic character. In his poorest days he managed to live in a fine mansion, drove blooded horses and kept an establishment worthy of one who enjoyed a stated income. His eloquence was of the most brilliant and persuasive character, carrying judges by storm, and swaying multitudes by its invisible power." Levy had previously disdained "the politician's flesh-pots..contended [sic.] himself to pursue his profession quietly, drive a fast horse, spend whole days playing dominoes with his Creole burghers, or suffling a poker deck with a crowd who enjoyed his inimitable wit much, but his money more. 'He always lost at poker,' said my companion, but he can put more fun in an anecdote or more hell in a political speech than any orator I ever heard.'
The correspondent was introduced to Levy at New Orleans' prestigious Boston Club [Gen. Richard Taylor and Judah Benjamin had both been members] that evening. He observed that "Colonel Bill was at once the center of an admiring group. And he should have been, such a splendid voice, rich, mellifluous, strong and resonant I never heard before. I had just a mere taint of Lord Dundrearyism [A Dundrearyism is an aphorism, proverb, colloquial phrase or riddle humorously combined with another in such a way to render it nonsensical. For example: "birds of a feather gather no moss." The word comes Lord Dundreary, a character in the stage play Our American Cousin who is prone to making such mistakes - Wikipedia] about it, which is doubtless the result of an overweening vanity which always characterizes people when they are smart and good-looking, too. His wit is keen and brilliant, and his anecdotal humor fully up to Lincoln. I learned that Colonel Bill was indeed an intellectual prodigy, who had been buried for twenty years in the swampy recesses of Louisiana, 150 miles from railway or telegraph, and whose light a mere chance had now drawn from a dark bushel." (Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, letter dated June 7, 1875).

In July 1877, the New York Times printed an extremely critical assessment of Levy in the context of a discussion of Pierson's murder in December 1876. The Times correspondent stated that after Pierson challenged Cosgrove on the street, he was killed not by Cosgrove but was "butchered" by "the crowd." The Times related that Pierson had been shot at previously. According to the Times, Pierson had testified before the "Congressional Committee" in January 1875 that he had been warned in confidence that assassins had been hired "by a man in high position to assassinate me.. I state here publicly that William M. Levy was that man who offered money to persons to take my life." Levy is described as Pierson's law partner and brother-in-law. According to the Times, the "cause of animosity against [Pierson] was his republicanism intensified in Levy's case by pecuniary matters." According to the Times "Pierson often stated after this, that if he ever was killed it would be by the connivance of Levy, who was then member of Congress. At that time [Levy] appeared in full harmony with the Natchitoches White League." The Times correspondent wrote that Levy had been considered for a cabinet position by Hayes and that "beneath his fine exterior he had a merciless soul...Two men were shot during the war by his orders at the head of Rapides Bayou without trial or plea. If he had no hand in the actual killing of Pierson, he certainly had no hand in bringing his murderers to justice." But, the Times stated, Levy had fallen out of favor locally. He had lost the Democratic Party's renomination to Congress to J.H. Clam, "an unreconstructed rebel." The Times wrote that "Levy had become too much contaminated with the Republican flesh-pots. He ruin was decreed and persecution was commenced. An opportunity to embarass him finanacially was unexpectedly used, and he suffered." His debtors "repudiated their debts and ostracized him. The doors of life-long friends and even relatives were closed against him." Cosgrove's Vindicator denounced him. "He lost all he had and to day [July 1877] has hardly enough for bread. None of his old clients will employ him. He is a broken man and his fine presence is no longer a disguise for the emotions beneath it. His miserable condition is said to be apparent to even a casual observer." The Times correspondent concluded that "if the bright and forgiving spirit of Pierson looks down on the scene where it was once so active, it must be with a pitying glance on the utter prostration of the once proud and vindictive William M. Levy" (NYT, July 9, 1877).

A lot of the Times' account is hard to believe. Although, as evidenced by his role in the Hayes-Tilden affair, Levy appeared to be a pragmatic, as opposed to an unreconstructable, Democrat, he certainly had not abandoned the Democratic Party for the Republican side so as to justify the censure described. Less than three years after the article was written, Levy was named to Louisiana's Supreme Court by Democratic Governor Wiltz. There is no evidence that Levy ever expressed any sympathy for Louisiana's Republicans or the assertion of the rights of the state's black citizens at the heart of Reconstruction. Consequently, it is hard to believe he would have even been abused in the manner of a scalawag. Nor does he appear to have been impoverished: an 1880 letter from his wife talks extensively about their farm. Any ostracism by the white community was certainly not devastating as the Levy family did not feel compelled to flee Natchitoches and returned Levy's body there for burial.

Levy's accomplishments are as follows: he was a successful and respected attorney, had a respectable war record in two wars, entered the public service several times in his career culminating in the distinguished offices of congressman and the Louisiana Supreme Court. Newspaper descriptions depict a charismatic and attractive presence. There are, however, more questionable apects of his career. Certainly his personal appeal had its limits as evidenced by his failure to be reelected colonel by his Louisiana troops in 1862 and his failure to be renominated as the Democratic candidate for Congress from his district in 1876.
Though he was an unapologetic Confederate, Levy's faithfulness to the cause of the South really can't be taken out of context and held against him since he did not have a reputation as a firebrand urging seccession. Nor did he leave behind a record of racist rhetoric. In fact, his political pragmatism in service of the South, may have alienated him from some of the more hardcore, "unreconstructed" former rebels. Suggestions of his involvement with the local White League and his being mixed up in his law partner and brother-in-law's persecution and murder are troubling. His "great" accomplishment, the only time he attracted national attention, was his role in the supposed conspiracy behind the compromise settling the Tilden-Hayes dispute, delivering the presidency to the Republicans and the South back to Democratic Party white rule. The immediate effect of this deal was ending Reconstruction in Louisiana. The long-term impact was the institutionalization of Jim Crow for almost 90 years.

In short, Levy was one of numerous, now forgotten, public figures whose portraits haunt civic buildings throughout the nation. Like many, he was quite distinguished in his community in his own time, but did not possess achievements warranting historical recollection after his demise. For Levy, however, there is one significant and unsettling caveat to this verdict of oblivion and that is his shadowy and unascertainably leading role in one of the most infamous and damaging events of American history.

Levy is included in a few recent books that list Jewish Congressman or soldiers. To get to the bottom of whether Levy actually indentified himself as Jewish, or he was only awarded this religious/ethnic status posthumously by 20th century scholars, I tracked down the sources:

1. Kurt F. Stone's Jews of Capitol Hill lists Levy and cites the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia and Marcus’s American Jewish Biography for his sources.

2. In his Jewish Confederates, Robert Rosen doesn’t cite any American-Jewish history material. He includes Levy in his book based only on Jewish name recognition and for Levy’s bio uses his military records, the Civil War OR, and Levy's commander, Zachary Taylor. Rosen does use the Levy family papers from the Williams Research Center in New Orleans, but I’ve also checked those out and the family letters (to wife and daughter Catharine) contain zero references to anything Jewish. So at least Rosen gets credit for using some primary sources. Rosen also cites Krick’s Lee’s Colonels, and I know Bruce Allardice did research for Krick, so if there is a Jewish reference there, it comes from Bruce who told me essentially that he relied on the Levy's Jewish name only. If we're going to call Levy Jewish for miltary history purposes, I don’t know why Rosen overlooks brother Charles Levy whose record in the Confederate Navy was probably more impressive than WML’s record in the army.

3. Jacob Rader Marcus - a giant of Jewish American history:

A. In his Early American Jewry,  Marcus does not mention WM Levy , his brothers, or his father John B. Levy.

B. In The Concise Dictionary of American Jewish Biography there is a concise Levy blurb with the only citation being the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia. Marcus does not list the father, or brothers.

4. The source that is the urtext of the WM Levy as Jew information:  the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia has a couple of paragraphs about W. M. Levy lifted directly from the Biographical Dictionary of the American Congress.

But, the congressional bios are available no-line and contain no references to Levy being Jewish. Here is Levy’s . This is the UJE’s only source and the UJE does not mention the father or any brothers.

4. Also, Louis Ginsburg's Chapters on the Jews of Virginia: Ginsburg lists John B. Levy among “possible Jewish names” in a Portsmouth, VA Masonic lodge. He also mentions “John Levy in Warwick County” as a “Jewish sounding name” in the 1790 Census. Finally, he writes that “William M. Levy is shown as an attorney” in Portsmouth.

So, in conclusion, some UJE editor was cherry picking Jewish names from the lists of congressmen in the Congressional Biographies, which contains no mention of Levy's Judaism. This is the source for Marcus and all his followers of the tradition that WM Levy is a prominent Jewish American. Ginsburg, at least, admitted he was just listing Jewish sounding names.

What’s next? It’s conclusive that no one has found any evidence that Levy was Jewish by ancestry, let alone considered himself Jewish. I’ve found evidence to show he considered himself a Christian (an anecdote of his appearing in church in Virginia during the War, church affiliation for himself and brothers, his burial etc. ). To take this further, the next step is to start investigating his father, John Benjamin Levy, more thoroughly (is the Benjamin middle name a give-away, trumping “john”?). I’ll start seeing what’s available for the late 18th century Virginia Jewish community.

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