David Levy Yulee

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David Levy Yulee
David Levy Yulee - Brady-Handy.jpg
United States Senator
from Florida
In office
March 4, 1855 January 21, 1861
Preceded by Jackson Morton
Succeeded by Thomas W. Osborn (1868)
In office
July 1, 1845 March 3, 1851
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded by Stephen Mallory
Member of the U.S.HouseofRepresentatives
from Florida Territory's at-large district
In office
March 4, 1841 March 3, 1845
Preceded by Charles Downing
Succeeded by Edward Cabell (Representative)
Personal details
David Levy

(1810-06-12)June 12, 1810
Charlotte Amalie, Danish West Indies (now U.S. Virgin Islands)
DiedOctober 10, 1886(1886-10-10) (aged 76)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s)Nancy Wickliffe

David Levy Yulee (born David Levy; June 12, 1810 – October 10, 1886) was an American politician and attorney. Born in St. Thomas, then under British control, he was of Sephardi Jewish ancestry: his father was from Morocco and his mother from Europe. The family moved to Florida when he was a child, and he grew up there on their extensive lands. He later served as Florida's territorial delegate to Congress. Yulee was the first person of Jewish ancestry to be elected and serve as a United States Senator, serving 1845–1851 and again 1855–1861. He founded the Florida Railroad Company and served as president of several other companies, earning the nickname of "Father of Florida Railroads." [1] In 2000 he was recognized as a "Great Floridian" by the state.


Levy added Yulee, the name of one of his Moroccan ancestors, to his name soon after his 1846 marriage to Nancy Christian Wickliffe, daughter of ex-Governor Charles A. Wickliffe of Kentucky. Though Yulee converted to Christianity [2] (Episcopalian [3] :187) and raised their children as Christian, [4] he encountered antisemitism throughout his career. [5]

Yulee was in favor of slavery and the secession of Florida. After the Civil War, he was imprisoned at Fort Pulaski for nine months for having aided the escape of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. [6] After being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, he returned to his Florida railroad interests and other business ventures. [7]

Early life and education

He was born David Levy in Charlotte Amalie, on the island of St. Thomas. His father was Moses Elias Levy, a Sephardi Jewish businessman from Morocco who made a fortune in lumber in the British colony. [8] [9] His mother, Hannah Abendanone, [10] was also Sephardi; her ancestors had gone from Spain in the 15th-century expulsion to the Protestant Netherlands and England. Some later migrated to the Caribbean as English colonists during the British occupation of the Danish West Indies (now the United States Virgin Islands). Moses Levy was a first cousin and business partner of Phillip Benjamin, the father of Judah P. Benjamin, the future Secretary of State of the Confederate States of America. [11]

After the family immigrated to the United States in the early 1820s, Moses Levy bought 50,000 acres (200 km2) of land near present-day Jacksonville, Florida Territory. He wanted to establish a "New Jerusalem" for Jewish settlers. The parents sent their son to a boy's academy and college in Norfolk, Virginia. Levy studied law with Robert R. Reid in St. Augustine, was admitted to the bar in 1832, and started a practice in St. Augustine. [1] [12] [13]

David L. Yulee, photograph by Mathew Brady Hon. David L. Yulee, Florida - NARA - 528542.jpg
David L. Yulee, photograph by Mathew Brady

Early political career

During his twenties Levy served in the territorial militia, including during the Second Seminole War. In 1834 he was present at a conference with Seminole chiefs, including Osceola.

In 1836 he was elected to the Florida Territory's Legislative Council, serving from 1837 to 1839. He was delegate to the territory's constitutional convention in 1838 and served as clerk of the legislature in 1841.

Florida businessman

Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins State Historic Site Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins01.jpg
Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins State Historic Site

In 1851 Yulee founded a 5,000-acre (20 km2) sugar cane plantation, built and maintained by enslaved African Americans, [14] along the Homosassa River. The remains of his plantation, which was destroyed during the Civil War, are now the Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins State Historic Site. Yulee was also business partners with John William Pearson at Orange Springs, Florida, but he abandoned his idea of building a railroad in the area as tensions rose and war seemed imminent. [15]

While living in Fernandina, Yulee began to develop a railroad across Florida. He had planned since 1837 to build a state-owned system. He became the first Southerner to use state grants under the Florida Internal Improvement Act of 1855, passed to encourage the development of such infrastructure. He made extensive use of the act to secure federal and state land grants "as a basis of credit" to acquire land and build railroad networks, which were built with slave and Irish immigrant labor [14] through the Florida wilderness. [13]

Issuing public stock, Yulee chartered the Florida Railroad in 1853. He planned its eastern and western terminals at deep-water ports, Fernandina (Port of Fernandina) on Amelia Island on the Atlantic side, and Cedar Key on the Gulf of Mexico, to provide for connection to ocean-going shipping. His company began construction in 1855. On March 1, 1861, the first train arrived from the east in Cedar Key, just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War.

Political career

Levy (still going by that surname) was elected in 1841 as the delegate from the Florida Territory to the United States House of Representatives and served four years. He was seated after his election, [16] but his position was disputed, as opponents argued that he was not a citizen. [17] Levy agreed to suspend his legislative activities pending resolution of this issue in the next Congressional session. [18] By late March 1842 the associated investigations, committee votes, and attempts to bring the issue to a vote in the full House, which included a defense by Levy and testimony from witnesses favorable to him, had not produced a definitive opinion of the House. [19] Levy was allowed to take his seat, and no further attempts were made to contest his claim to it. [20] Once seated in the House, Levy worked to gain statehood for the territory and to protect the expansion of slavery in other newly admitted states.

In 1845, after Florida was admitted as a state, the legislature elected Levy as a Democrat to the United States Senate, the first Jew in the United States to win a seat in the Senate. He served until 1851 (during which period he began using Yulee as his surname). [21] During his first Senate term, he served as chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Private Land Claims (1845-1849) and the United States Senate Committee on Naval Affairs (1849-1851).

In 1855 Yulee was again elected by the Florida legislature to the Senate. He served until resigning in 1861 in order to support the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War.

Yulee's inflammatory pro-slavery rhetoric in the Senate earned him the nickname "Florida Fire-Eater". [22] Although he frequently denied that he favored secession, Yulee and his colleague, Senator Stephen Mallory, jointly requested from the War Department a statement of munitions and equipment in Florida forts on January 2, 1860. He wrote to a friend in the state, "the immediately important thing to be done is the occupation of the forts and arsenals in Florida." [6]

Civil War

During the Civil War, Yulee did not seek any elective or appointive office. There is some dispute as to his wartime legislative service as some sources state that he served in the Confederate Congress and others do not. [12] [23] After the war, Yulee was imprisoned in Fort Pulaski for nine months for treason, [3] :188 specifically for aiding in the 1865 escape of Jefferson Davis. [6]


After receiving a pardon and being released from confinement, Yulee returned to Florida and rebuilt the Yulee Railroad, which had been destroyed by warfare. He served as president of the Florida Railroad Company from 1853 to 1866, as well as president of the Peninsular Railroad, Tropical Florida Railway, and Fernandina and Jacksonville Railroad companies. His development of the railroads in Florida was his most important achievement and contribution to the state. [13] He was called the "Father of Florida Railroads". [1] His leadership helped bring increased economic development to the state, including the late nineteenth-century tourist trade. [1] In 1870 Yulee hosted President Ulysses S. Grant in Fernandina.

Marriage and family

In 1846, Levy officially changed his name to David Levy Yulee by act of the Florida Legislature, [6] adding his father's Sephardic surname. [13] That year he married Nancy Christian Wickliffe, the daughter of Charles A. Wickliffe, the former governor of Kentucky and Postmaster General under President John Tyler. His wife was Christian, and they raised their children in her faith. [1]

Death and legacy

Selling the Florida Railroad, he retired with his wife to Washington, D.C. in 1880, where she had family. [13] Yulee died six years later while visiting in New York City. [24] [25] Yulee was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C. [1]

Yulee gravesite Yulee gravesite funerary memorial.jpg
Yulee gravesite
Memorial inscription Yulee-Base inscription funerary memorial.jpg
Memorial inscription

See also

Archival material

The George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida have a collection of David Levy Yulee Papers (1842–1886). Some of the material has been digitized.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Jewish Virtual Library: David Levy Yulee" . Retrieved 2009-05-15.
  2. Garraty, John Arthur; Carnes, Mark Christopher (1999). American National Biography. 24. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 201.
  3. 1 2 Allman, T.D. (2013). Finding Florida. The True History of the Sunshine State. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN   9780802120762.
  4. Edenfield, Gray (June 17, 2014). "David Yulee's History". From the Jailhouse. Fernandina Beach, FL: Amelia Island Museum of History.
  5. McIver, Stuart B. (2008). Touched by the Sun. 3. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press. p. 168. ISBN   978-1-56164-206-9.
  6. 1 2 3 4 Federal Writers' Project (1939), Florida. A Guide to the Southernmost State, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 348, retrieved October 29, 2017
  7. David Levy Yulee Jewish Virtual Library
  8. Kurt F. Stone, The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members, 2010, page 4
  9. Roger Moore, Ron Kurtz, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach, 2001, page 1873
  10. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-1886-controversy-beset-senator-dies-1.5347977
  11. Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida (Coral Gables, FL: MOSAIC, Inc., 1991): 9
  12. 1 2 Retrieved from the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum of Florida
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 John R. Nemmers, "A Guide to the David Levy Yulee Papers", University of Florida Smathers Libraries, Special and Area Studies Collections, March 2005, accessed 24 July 2011
  14. 1 2 Wiseman, Maury. "David Levy Yulee: Conflict and Continuity in Social Memory". Jacksonville University. Retrieved 2013-06-27.
  15. Cook, David (December 6, 1987). "Orange Springs Once Thriving Resort". Ocala Star-Banner. Retrieved May 2, 2014.
  16. "House of Representatives: Mr. Levy introduced a bill making further provision for the suppression of hostilities in Florida..." . Hillsborough Recorder. Hillsborough, NC. August 5, 1841. p. 3.
  17. "Twenty-Seventh Congress: The resolution of the Committee on Elections in reference to Mr. Levy was taken up as follows: Resolved, that David Levy, Esq., is not a citizen of the United States..." . Public Ledger. Philadelphia, PA. September 8, 1841. p. 1.
  18. "The resolution postponing the case of David Levy sitting delegate from Florida till the next session was adopted: Yeas 123, Nays 44" . Commercial Advertiser and Journal. Buffalo, NY. September 13, 1841. p. 2.
  19. Bartlett, D. W. (1865). Cases of Contested Elections in Congress from 1834 to 1865, Inclusive. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. p.  47.
  20. Cases of Contested Elections in Congress from 1834 to 1865, Inclusive, p. 47.
  21. 1 2 "Great Floridians 2000 Program: Judah Philip Benjamin". Florida Department of State, Florida Heritage. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30.
  22. Horowitz, Jason (12 July 2014). "Republican Jews Alarmed at the Prospect of a Void in the House and Senate". The New York Times . Retrieved 13 July 2014.
  23. Davis, Robt. W. (June 1, 1902). "Florida in Congress". Florida Magazine. Jacksonville, FL: G. D. Ackerly: 362. Note: All of Florida's Confederate Congress Senators and Representatives are listed here, and Yulee's name is not among them.
  24. Thomas William Herringshaw, Herringshaw's National Library of American Biography, 1914, p. 524
  25. John R. Nemmers, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida, A Guide to the David Levy Yulee Papers: Biographical Note, March 2005
  26. Hunn, Max (Aug 19, 1956). "Driving through Florida history". Ocala Star-Banner. p. 29. Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  27. Publications of the Florida Historical Society. Florida Historical Society. 1908. p. 32.
  28. Feldman, Ari (August 20, 2017). "Why Are There No Statues Of Jewish Confederate Judah Benjamin To Tear Down?". Forward. Retrieved September 6, 2017. There is only one known statue of a Jewish Confederate leader. It depicts David Levy Yulee, an industrialist, plantation owner, and Confederate senator from Florida, and it shows him sitting on a bench.
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
Charles Downing
Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida Territory's at-large congressional district

Succeeded by
Edward Cabell
as U.S. Representative
U.S. Senate
New seat United States Senator (Class 1) from Florida
Served alongside: James Westcott, Jackson Morton
Succeeded by
Stephen Mallory
Preceded by
Jackson Morton
United States Senator (Class 3) from Florida
Served alongside: Stephen Mallory
Title next held by
Thomas W. Osborn (1)
Notes and references
1. Because of Florida's secession, the Senate seat was vacant for seven years.