In honor of North Carolina’s ratification of the United States Constitution on November 21, 1789, making it the 12th state of the Union, today’s Jewish Treat presents Jacob Henry, a proud Jew who stood up against bigotry to claim his place in the legislature.
Henry was a long-time resident of the city of Beaufort, North Carolina, having moved there in his youth with his parents from Charleston, when he was elected as state representative for Carteret County in 1808. He was, at the time of his election, a successful merchant with a growing family. (He and his wife Esther had 7 children.)
On December 5, 1809, not long after the beginning of Henry’s second term, Hugh C. Mills introduced a resolution that Jacob Henry should lose his seat in the legislature because he did not qualify for civil office. Indeed, the North Carolina constitution specified that “No person who shall deny the being of God, or the Truth of the Protestant religion or the Divine Authority either of the Old or New Testament… shall be capable of holding any Office or Place of Trust or Profit in the Civil Department within this State.” The House granted Henry one day to prepare a response.
Henry’s impassioned speech*, in which he extolled the virtues of religious freedom without directly mentioning his own Jewish faith, won the day. The resolution was voted down, and Henry was permitted to remain in the House of Commons. His speech was reprinted many times and was used as a model of great oratory.
What happened to Jacob Henry after this speech is not clear, but he did not return to the legislature for the next session. He is next noted in the 1820 census living in Charleston, South Carolina, where he remained until his passing in October 1847.
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