Defense of Uriah P. Levy Against Dismissal from the Navy, December 1857

Defence of Uriah P. Levy, before the Court of Inquiry, Held at Washington City, November and December, 1857

In pursuance of the Act of Congress, entitled ''An Act to Amend an Act entitled 'An Act to Promote the Efficiency of the Navy,' '' prepared and read by his senior counsel B. F. Butler of New York

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''An American Forerunner of Dreyfus'', Century Illustrated
Schappes, 375ff.

[p. 10] I was appointed a lieutenant….[my promotion] was not the gift of blind patronage or of irresponsible power, but the intelligent and discriminating award of my superiors…as the spontaneous and impartial tribute to what they, at least, thought ''extraordinary merit,'' and ''extraordinary services.''….
This distinction…increased the disfavor with which certain officers in the navy looked upon my promotion. And with the prejudice generated by the promotion itself, there was also mingled another of earlier date and greater intensity, and to which, as it plays a most [p. 11] active, though at times a concealed, part in my personal history, it is necessary I should now refer.
My parents were Israelites, and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors. In deciding to adhere to it, I have but exercised a right, guaranteed to me by the constitution of my native State, and of the
United States—a right given to all men by their Maker—a right more precious to each of us than life itself. But, while claiming and exercising this freedom of conscience, I have never failed to acknowledge and respect the like freedom in others. I might safely defy the citation of a single act, in the whole course of my official career, injurious to the religious rights of any person. Remembering always that the great mass of my fellow-citizens were Christians; profoundly grateful to the Christian founders of our republic, for their justice and liberality to my long persecuted race; I have earnestly endeavored, in all places and circumstances, to act up to the wise and tolerant spirit of our political institutions. I have therefore been careful to treat every Christian, and especially ever Christian under my command, with exemplary justice and ungrudging liberality….

At an early day, and especially from the time when it became known to the oflicers of my age and grade, that I aspired to a lieutenancy, and still more, after I had gained it, I was forced to encounter a large share of the prejudice and hostility by which, for so many ages, the Jew has been pursued. I need not speak to you of the incompatibility of' these sentiments with the genius of Christianity, or the precepts of its author. You should know this far better than I; but I ask you to unite with the wisest and best men of our own country and of Europe, in denouncing them, not merely as injurious to the peace and welfare of the community, but as repugnant to every dictate of reason, humanity and justice.
In February, 1818, I was transferred, by Commodore Stewart, from his ship, the Franklin, 74, to the frigate United States, under the command of Captain Crane. Under the influence of the double prejudice to which I have alluded, a conspiracy was formed among certain officers of this frigate to prevent my reception in her. [p. 12] Commodore Jones… gives a full account of it. He says:

Lieutenant Levy, for several months, was fourth, and I first lieutenant, of the frigate United States, where he discharged his duty satisfactorily to the captain as well as to the first lieutenant, notwithstanding his advent into our ship was attended with such novel and discouraging circumstances as, in justice to captain Levy, renders it necessary here to record them.
On the arrival of the Franklin, of 74 guns, at Syracuse, in 1818,…the ward-room mess, without consulting me, determined to remonstrate against Levy's coming aboard….Astonished at such a proposition, I inquired as to the cause, when I was answered that he was a Jew, and not an agreeable person, and they did not want to be brought in contact with him….I then asked the relator if he, or any member of our mess, knew anything, of his own knowledge, derogatory to lieutenant Levy, as an officer and as a gentleman. The answer was no but they had heard thus and so, &c., &c…. I know that, perhaps with a single exception, those who opposed his joining our mess, not only relented, but deeply regretted the false step they had incautiously taken.

[Resuming Levy's own testimony] During the few months that Commodore Jones remained in the ship United States, his wise and just counsels had the effect he describes. After he left her, I am sorry to be obliged to say, the old
prejudices revived in the breasts of too many of my associates. …

[p. 13] The following is the letter of Captain Crane, evidently written at the instance and in the temper, of the cabal referred to by Commodore Jones:

Unites States Ship United States, February 4, 1818
It is with deep regret that I learn Lieut. Levy and other officers have been ordered to my ship….My ship already has her complement of officers; any additions will not only be inconvenient, but may tend to destroy the harmony and good-will which have uniformly prevailed. [p. 14] Considerations of a personal nature render Lieut. Levy peculiarly objectionable, and I trust, he at least will not be forced upon me.
I have the honr to be , &c., &c., &c., &c.,
Wm. M. Crane
[To] Commodore Charles Stewart, &c., &c., &c. U.S. Ship Franklin

The reply of Commodore Stewart to this letter, was as follows:
U.S. Ship Franklin, Syracuse, Feby. 5, 1818.
Your letter of yesterday's date has been received and duly considered. I should regret exceedingly that a practice should grow up in our naval service, or be countenanced in any manner by me, so highly prejudicial to the order and discipline of so important a branch of it as is entrusted to my command…, to preserve … the order, subordination and discipline of my command, for the benefit of the service, the honor of the flag, and the immediate reputation of the general officers attached to the squadron, as well as my own. It would not well comport with these important, objects, or with the character of a commander-in-chief, were he only to consult the wishes, the convenience, and the private partialities or dislikes of the officers under his command
on all occasions. The commander-in-chief, at the same time admits, that occasion may occur wherein it may be proper to consult and accommodate the wishes of officers; but of the propriety of those occasions, he reserves to himself to be the proper judge. The present, occasion he does not consider as such….
The preservation of harmony among the officers of the squadron, as well as between
the others in their respective ships, is of primary importance, and can only be effected, by the strictest discipline ; and should any officer's conduct, be such as to destroy the harmony prevailing, every means in my power will be readily afforded to punish and correct him. Imaginary objections having no solid existence, or growing out of malicious report, against any officer having the commission of the President of the United States, as also his confidence, ought not and never can divert, the commander in-chief from what he considers his duty…. As all legal orders are obligatory, it is expected they will be executed with promptitude, and not considered as oppressive or forced, a term, if not personally disrespectful to the commander-in-chief, which may be at least considered so towards the service. Should you be possessed of a knowledge of any conduct, on the part of Lieut. Levy, which would render him unworthy of the commission he holds, I would, at, the request of any commander, represent it to the Government; or if his conduct, has been such to make employment of Lieut. Levy in this squadron improper and, prejudicial to the service, on your representing it to me officially, I would order him home to the United States. As your letter contains no specific notice of his misconduct, I can find nothing therein whereon to found a reason for contermanding the order, or for changing his destination.
I am, &c., &c. your obd't serv't,
Chas. Stewart
To Capt. Wm Crane, U.S.S. United States

[p. 86]
Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Court:
My defence, so far as it depends on the examination of the evidence, is before you ; and here, perhaps, I ought to stop. But the peculiarities of my case—the importance and far-reaching interest of the principles it involves—requires, what I hope you will allow me, a few additional remarks.
That the allegation of unfitness for the naval service, made against me by the Government, was wholly unsupported by evidence; and that I have made out a complete defence against the attempt to justify my dismissal, and an affirmative title to restoration, by the proofs on my part ; these I regard as undeniable propositions. And yet there are those connected with the navy, who, notwithstanding all the proofs I have produced, are hostile to my
restoration. This, it would be vain to deny to others, or to conceal …
[p. 87] Never… was there a man, in the ranks of our profession, against whom, in the breasts of certain members of that profession, prejudices so unjust and yet so strong, have so long and so incessantly rankled. Such, too, are the origin and character of these prejudices, as to make them, of all others, the most inveterate and unyielding. The prejudice felt by men of little minds, who think themselves, by the accidental circumstances of wealth or ancestry, better than the less favored of their fellows ; the prejudice of caste, which looks down on the man who, by honest toil, is the maker of his own fortunes ; this prejudice is stubborn as well as bitter, and of this I have had, as you have seen by the proofs, my full share. But, this is placable and transient compared with that generated and nourished by religious intolerance and bigotry.
The first article of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States, specially declares, in its first clause, that ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;'' thus showing by its place, no less than by its language, how highly freedom of conscience was valued by the founders of our Republic. In the constitutions of the several States, now in force, the like provision is contained. Our liberality and justice, in this regard, have been honored by the friends of liberty and human rights throughout the world. ….

[p. 88]This is the case before you; and, in this view, its importance cannot be overrated. It is the case of every Israelite in the Union. I need not speak to you of their number. They are unsurpassed by any portion of our people in loyalty to the Constitution and to the Union in their quiet obedience to the laws; and in the cheerfulness with which they contribute to the public burthens. Many of them have been distinguished by their liberal donations to the general interests of education and of charity; in some cases, too- -of which the name Judah Touro will remind you- -to charities controlled by Christians. And of all my brethren in this land- -as well those of foreign birth as of American descent- -how rarely does any one of them become a charge on your State or municipal treasuries! How largely do they all contribute to the activities of trad; to the interests of commerce; to the stock of public wealth! Are all these to be proscribed? And is this to be done while we retain in our Constitution the language I have quoted? Is this language to be spoken to the ear, but broken to the hope, of my race? Are the thousands of Judah and the ten thousands of Israel, in their dispersions throughout the earth, who look to America, as a land bright with promise- -are they now to learn, to their sorrow and dismay, that we, too, have sunk into the mire of religious intolerance and bigotry? And are American Christians now to begin the persecution of the Jews? Of the Jews, who stand among them the representatives of the patriarchs and prophets;- - the Jews, to whom were committed the oracles of God;- -the Jews, from whom these oracles have been received, and who are the living witnesses of their truth;- -the Jews, from whom came the founder of Christianity;- -the Jews, to whom, as Christians themselves believe, have been made promises of greatness and glory, in whose fulfillment [p. 89] are bound up the hopes, not merely of the remnant of Israel, but of all the races of men? And think not, if you enter on this career, that it can be limited to the Jew. What is my case to-day, if you yield to this injustice, may to-morrow be that of the Roman Catholic or the Unitarian; the Episcopalian or the Methodist; the Presbyterian or the Baptist. This is but one safeguard; and this is to be found in an honest, whole-hearted, inflexible support of the wise, the just, the impartial guarantee of the Constitution. I have the fullest confidence that you will faithfully adhere to this guarantee; and therefore, with like confidence, I leave my destiny in your hands.
U. P. Levy

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