David Levy Yulee

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David Levy Yulee
Yulee (c. 1855–1865)
United States Senator
from Florida
In office
March 4, 1855 – January 21, 1861
Preceded byJackson Morton
Succeeded byThomas W. Osborn (in 1868)
In office
July 1, 1845 – March 3, 1851
Preceded bySeat established
Succeeded byStephen Mallory
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida Territory's at-large district
In office
March 4, 1841 – March 3, 1845
Preceded byCharles Downing
Succeeded byEdward 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.
Resting placeOak Hill Cemetery
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
SpouseNancy Wickliffe
RelativesCharles A. Wickliffe (father-in-law)

David Levy Yulee (born David Levy; June 12, 1810 – October 10, 1886) was an American politician and attorney who served as the senator from Florida immediately before the American Civil War. A secessionist and slaveowner, he also founded the Florida Railroad Company and served as president of several other rail companies, earning him the nickname of "Father of Florida Railroads."[1]

Yulee was born on the island of St. Thomas, then under British control to a Sephardic Jewish family; his father was a trader from Morocco and his mother, also of Sephardi descent, was born in Sint Eustatius and raised in St. Thomas.[2] The family moved to Florida when he was a child. 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.

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,[3] becoming an Episcopalian,[4]: 187 ) and raised their children as Christian,[5] he encountered antisemitism throughout his career.[6]

Yulee was in favor of slavery and the secession of Florida. His fortune came from a sugarcane plantation on the Homosassa River, and his antebellum railroads were largely built by slave labor. After the Civil War, he was imprisoned at Fort Pulaski for nine months for having aided the escape of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.[7] After being pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, he returned to his Florida railroad interests and other business ventures.[8] In 2000 he was recognized as a "Great Floridian" by the state.

Early life and education[edit]

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.[9][10] His mother, Hannah Abendanone,[11] was also Sephardi; her ancestors were expelled from Spain to the Netherlands and England. His grandfather Eliyahu ha-Levy ibn-Yuli served as an undersecretary to Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah while his paternal grandmother Rachel was from Tangiers and was said to have spoken fluent Spanish.[9] 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.[12]

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. Despite his wealth as a trader, his father feared it would lead to sin.[citation needed] 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][13][14]

David L. Yulee, photograph by Mathew Brady

Early political career[edit]

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

Florida businessman[edit]

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,[15] 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.[16]

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[15] through the Florida wilderness.[14]

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[edit]

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,[17] but his position was disputed, as opponents argued that he was not a citizen.[18] Levy agreed to suspend his legislative activities pending resolution of this issue in the next Congressional session.[19] 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.[20] Levy was allowed to take his seat, and no further attempts were made to contest his claim to it.[21] 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).[22] 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".[23] 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."[7]

Civil War[edit]

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.[13][24] According to the records of the United States Senate, Yulee did serve in the Confederate Congress.[25] After the war, Yulee was imprisoned in Fort Pulaski for nine months for treason,[4]: 188  specifically for aiding in the 1865 escape of Jefferson Davis.[7]


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.[14] 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[edit]

In 1846, Levy officially changed his name to David Levy Yulee by an act of the Florida Legislature,[7] adding his father's Sephardic surname.[14] 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] Levy was a second cousin of U.S. Senator from Louisiana Judah P. Benjamin.[26]

Death and legacy[edit]

Selling the Florida Railroad, he retired with his wife to Washington, D.C., in 1880, where she had a family.[14] Yulee died on October 10, 1886, at the Clarendon Hotel in New York City.[27][28][29] Yulee was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.[1][30]

Yulee gravesite
Memorial inscription

See also[edit]

Archival material[edit]

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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Jewish Virtual Library: David Levy Yulee". Retrieved 2009-05-15.
  2. ^ Kurt F. Stone, The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members, 2010, page 4
  3. ^ Garraty, John Arthur; Carnes, Mark Christopher (1999). American National Biography. Vol. 24. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 201. ISBN 9780195206357.
  4. ^ a b Allman, T.D. (2013). Finding Florida. The True History of the Sunshine State. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 9780802120762.
  5. ^ Edenfield, Gray (June 17, 2014). "David Yulee's History". From the Jailhouse. Fernandina Beach, FL: Amelia Island Museum of History.
  6. ^ McIver, Stuart B. (2008). Touched by the Sun. Vol. 3. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-1-56164-206-9.
  7. ^ a b c d Federal Writers' Project (1939), Florida. A Guide to the Southernmost State, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 348, retrieved October 29, 2017
  8. ^ David Levy Yulee Jewish Virtual Library
  9. ^ a b Stone, Kurt F. (2001). The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members. Scarecrow Press. p. 4. ISBN 9-780-8108-7738-2.
  10. ^ Roger Moore, Ron Kurtz, Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach, 2001, page 1873
  11. ^ "1886: Controversy-beset first Jewish U.S. Senator dies". Haaretz.
  12. ^ Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida (Coral Gables, FL: MOSAIC, Inc., 1991): 9
  13. ^ a b Retrieved from the permanent collection of the Jewish Museum of Florida
  14. ^ a b c d e 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
  15. ^ a b Wiseman, Maury. "David Levy Yulee: Conflict and Continuity in Social Memory". Jacksonville University. Retrieved 2013-06-27.
  16. ^ Cook, David (December 6, 1987). "Orange Springs Once Thriving Resort". Ocala Star-Banner. Retrieved May 2, 2014.
  17. ^ "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.
  18. ^ "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.
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ Bartlett, D. W. (1865). Cases of Contested Elections in Congress from 1834 to 1865, Inclusive. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office. p. 47.
  21. ^ Cases of Contested Elections in Congress from 1834 to 1865, Inclusive, p. 47.
  22. ^ a b "Great Floridians 2000 Program: Judah Philip Benjamin". Florida Department of State, Florida Heritage. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Davis, Robt. W. (June 1, 1902). "Florida in Congress". Florida Magazine. Jacksonville, FL: G. D. Ackerly: 362. Note: All of Florida's Confederate senators and representatives are listed here, and Yulee's name is not among them.
  25. ^ "U.S. Senate: The Election Case of David L. Yulee of Florida v. Stephen R. Mallory of Florida (1852)".
  26. ^ Monaco, C. S. (October 2015). Moses Levy of Florida: Jewish Utopian and Antebellum Reformer. LSU Press. ISBN 978-0-8071-6428-0.
  27. ^ "Death of Mr. Yulee". The Weekly Floridian. October 14, 1886. p. 2. Retrieved 2023-11-17 – via Newspapers.com.open access
  28. ^ Thomas William Herringshaw, Herringshaw's National Library of American Biography, 1914, p. 524
  29. ^ John R. Nemmers, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida, A Guide to the David Levy Yulee Papers: Biographical Note, March 2005
  30. ^ "Oak Hill Cemetery, Georgetown, D.C. (Henry Crescent) - Lots 366 and 367 East" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-23. Retrieved 2022-10-22.
  31. ^ Hunn, Max (Aug 19, 1956). "Driving through Florida history". Ocala Star-Banner. p. 29. Retrieved 8 June 2015.
  32. ^ Publications of the Florida Historical Society. Florida Historical Society. 1908. p. 32.
  33. ^ 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.

External links[edit]

U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives
from Florida Territory's at-large congressional district

Succeeded byas U.S. Representative
U.S. Senate
New seat United States Senator (Class 1) from Florida
Served alongside: James Westcott, Jackson Morton
Succeeded by
Preceded by 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.