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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Jacob Henry's defense: Pleading the 44th

(Public Domain)
There once lived in the fledgling United States of America an earnest man by the name of Jacob Henry.

After representing Carteret County in North Carolina's House of Commons in 1808, Henry was popular enough to be reelected in 1809.  Nevertheless, a person (there's one in every crowd) by the name of Hugh Mills (from a different county, no less) felt impelled to challenge this reelection on the grounds that Henry "denies the divine authority of the New Testament, and refused to take the oath prescribed by law for his qualification." 

Just what oath was Mills referring to?  Ira Rosenswaike explains that "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."  Rosenswaike also explains that "as a Jew, he [Henry] could not make such affirmations."  When the House subsequently debated the matter, Henry's rousing defense of his right to hold public office was so impressive that it remains a vibrant testament for religious freedom and tolerance to this day.

Here are some excerpts from Henry's 1809 Address in the Committee of the Whole of the House of Commons of North Carolina:  "…the 44th section of the latter instrument [the US Constitution] declares that the declaration of rights ought never to be violated on any pretense whatsoever…  the language of the Bill of rights is that all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own Conscience…  There are Presbyterians, Lutherans, Calvinists, Menonists, Baptists, Trinitarians and Unitarians…  we see houses of Worship in almost every part of the State, but very few for protestants ['the Protestant religion as established by Law in England']…  Who among us feels himself so exalted above his fellows, as to have a right to dictate to them their mode of belief?  Shall this free Country set an example of Persecution, which even the returning reason of enslaved Europe would not submit to?"

It is said that Henry was joined in his ultimately successful plea for religious tolerance by North Carolina's then Chief Justice John Louis Taylor, who was "a Roman Catholic."


Copyright January 20, 2013 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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