On December 6, 1809, Jacob Henry, North Carolina’s first Jewish legislator, delivered a rousing speech about religious liberty to the General Assembly. Henry represented Carteret County in 1808 and 1809, a time in which people were bound constitutionally to affirm the “truth of the Protestant religion” before holding any public office. He served his first term without incident, but in 1809 a newly-elected representative took issue with Henry’s religious affiliation and introduced a resolution to remove him from office.
The legislators decided to take up the resolution the next day, giving Henry time to prepare his defense. Without specifically mentioning Judaism, he addressed “natural and inalienable rights” and equalized religious sects with phrases such as, “the ruler of the universe.”
Ultimately Jacob Henry was allowed to retain his seat. His inspiring and eloquent speech to the 1809 General Assembly, has been published and quoted frequently ever since. It is considered a touchstone of religious rights and tolerance.
Visitors to Beaufort can see the Federal era house that he built at 229 Front Street, where it still stands today. Henry lived there with his wife, Esther Whitehurst, whom he married in 1801.
A highway marker in Carteret County honors Henry.
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