Commodore Levy: A Novel of Early America in the Age of Sail

Written by Irving Litvag
Review by Eva Ulett

This biographical novel chronicles the life of Uriah Phillips Levy, the first Jewish commander in the United States Navy. Born in Philadelphia in 1792, Levy was taught early to love his religion and country. Uriah’s grandfather, Jonas Phillips, takes him to see the frigate United States building in Joshua Humphreys’ shipyard. One of the original six frigates ordered after the War of Independence, the United States inspires Uriah. After leaving home at ten to become a cabin boy, Uriah learns seamanship and rises in rank. As second mate on a merchantman, Uriah is taken by a British press gang after a fight provoked by an insult to Uriah’s religion. British Admiral Cochrane releases Uriah and offers him entrance in the Royal Navy at officer rank. “I owe and always shall owe my allegiance to my country,” Uriah answers.

Much of Uriah Levy’s character is revealed in this single early incident of his life: a zeal for country, a quick and angry resentment of any slight to his honor or religion, and Levy’s maritime professionalism. Uriah enters the United States Navy, but his career, and his life, contains a great deal of irregularity. He stood six courts-martial, fought a duel with a fellow officer, and at sixty married his niece of eighteen. The courts-martial seem primarily motived by prejudice toward Levy’s Hebrew faith, and his entering the Navy through the merchant service rather than the officer corps. This is a comprehensive treatment of the life of the first Jewish American to reach the rank of commodore in the United States Navy. Uriah Phillips Levy’s life is depicted from five years to seventy, and though the novel may be overlong, the tale of this important and remarkable American deserves a place alongside those of other founding fathers.