Jews in the South

By Leonard Dinnerstein; Mary Dale Palsson | Go to book overview

Further Light on Jacob Henry

Ira Rosenwaike

NORTH CAROLINA'S Constitution of 1776 denied public office to individuals unable to affirm the "truth of the Protestant religion" or the "divine authority" of the New Testament. In 1809, however, Jacob Henry was able to prevent his seat in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of the state legislature, from being declared vacant because, as a Jew, he could not make such affirmations. Henry's successful effort has long been celebrated as a victory of the principle that the right to public office is not dependent on religious belief. The impressive speech Henry delivered when the House debated the issue is credited with persuading the legislators to reject the resolution that would have deprived him of his seat. The speech has been reprinted continually, since at least 1814,1 in collections of addresses and documents and in histories. So limited, however, has our knowledge of Henry himself been that modern-day historians are still unable to assess the validity of the statement by a mid-nineteenth- centuryNorth Carolina chronicler that Henry's speech was reportedly "the production of [the state's] Chief Justice Taylor."2John

____________________
1
In a note accompanying the most recent reprint as of this writing, Joseph L. Blau indicates that the first reprinting probably appeared in a collection of addresses, The American Speaker, published at Philadelphia in 1814. See also Daniel J. Boorstin (ed.), An American Primer ( 2 vols.; Chicago, 1966), I, 220. On the North Carolina state Constitution of 1776, see American Jewish Archives, X ( 1958), 30-31.
2
John H. Wheeler, Historical Sketches of North Carolina from 1584 to 1851 ( 2 vols.; Philadelphia, 1851), II, 74.

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