- Moses E. Levy of Florida: A Jewish Abolitionist Abroad
At first glance the life of Moses Elias Levy appears to be enveloped in contradictions: Jewish colonizer and former arms dealer, frontier settler and urban sophisticate, radical religious reformer and biblical conservative—these apparent incongruities continue to hinder any facile definition of his beliefs. Perhaps the most glaring manifestation of Levy’s dual nature was his status as slaveholder and ardent abolitionist. The fact remains, however, that Moses Elias Levy of Florida—one of the few Jewish plantation owners in the entire South—was the author of an abolitionist pamphlet published during an extended stay in London in 1828. This work was released anonymously in England shortly before Levy’s final return to the United States and, despite contemporary references crediting him as the author of such a plan, the publication never surfaced again, until now. 1A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery, Consistently with the Interests of All Parties Concerned—an anonymous tract held in the British Library and the Library of Congress—not only clarifies many apparent discrepancies but also gives much needed insight into the life and motivations of this industrious and fervently religious man. 2
Levy conducted his abolitionist activities at a time when antislavery issues were identified with the Evangelical Movement of the Church of England and such Dissenters as Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists. Consequently, his was the only Jewish-American voice amid an outpouring of Protestant fervor in England. Levy’s outspokenness placed him at odds with the Anglo-Jewish establishment. An outsider not bound by a strict sense of public reticence, he openly challenged both the Evangelical assumption of moral leadership in social reform and the Anglo-Jewish ideal of assimilation. Levy’s denunciation of slavery and his advocacy of a “gradualist” approach to emancipation also contradict previous assertions that “there was not a single abolitionist among the Jews of the South.” 3 [End Page 377]
The proof for Levy’s authorship of A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery rests on a number of facts; the most apparent is the time and place of publication. As historian Jacob Toury has noted, 1828 was the year Levy promised “to publish a plan for the abolition of negro slavery throughout the world” while in London. 4 On 28 August 1828 Levy delivered a copy of his “pamphlet on the Slave question” to an acquaintance. 5 Since the anonymous tract is dated 1 July 1828—the timing is impressive. To further strengthen the case, on 9 July the weekly London religious newspaper The World announced the release of A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery in an editorial describing the author as a man “possessed of a great benevolence of soul, and a deep and enlightened piety.” Numerous letters written by Levy were published in The World, and his activities—including abolitionist lectures—were well known to the readership. Several months prior to the publication of the pamphlet, the paper acknowledged Levy by name and noted his religious piety and benevolence. Significantly, not only do the date and place of publication match, but the editors of The World exhibit a personal knowledge of the unnamed author when they attest to his moral and religious integrity. 6
A Plan for the Abolition of Slavery reveals a depth of individual experience that narrows the possibility of authorship to a select few and coincides, to a remarkable degree, with Levy’s own history. The pamphleteer admits that he resided “in slave-holding countries for more than twenty-four years . . . under peculiarly advantageous circumstances.” 7 This length of time corresponds precisely to Levy’s residence in St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, finally, Florida. Furthermore, a review in the London Literary Chronicle mentions that the “author has lived 20 years in the West Indies.” 8 Again, this very exact reference agrees with Levy’s arrival in St. Thomas in 1800 and his final departure from Cuba to the United States in 1820. For much of this period Levy held a lucrative and powerful position as an arms and munitions supplier to the Spanish colonies, owning a fleet of commercial sailing vessels. 9 His [End Page 378...