“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”— O. Wilde

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

American History and Today’s Two Americas



In 1809, Jacob Henry was elected and qualified for a second, consecutive annual term in North Carolina’s lower legislative house: the House of Commons. He was one of two members for Carteret County. According to the standard narrative, Henry was Jewish. On December 5, 1809, another member, Hugh C. Mills, put forward a motion to declare Henry’s seat vacant based on the 1776 North Carolina Constitution’s religious test. (N.C. Const. of 1776, Article XXXII.) The next day, the Commons adjudicated the motion, and the motion failed. Henry kept his seat.

Much of what has been written about these events has been quite odd. My critique of the prior historiography and legal analyses can be found here: Seth Barrett Tillman, A Religious Test in America?: The 1809 Motion to Vacate Jacob Henry’s North Carolina State Legislative Seat—A Re-Evaluation of the Primary Sources, 98(1) North Carolina Historical Review (forth. circa Jan. 2021) (peer reviewed), <https://ssrn.com/abstract=3498217>.

Here I want to flag how two historians characterized these events.

Jacob Rader Marcus, United States Jewry 1776–1985, multiple vols. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), volume 1, page 507:

It must have been quite a shock to [Henry], after he had served for a year in the state legislature and had been reelected for another term, to see one of his colleagues rise and, without warning, ask for his expulsion because Henry, as a Jew, was not entitled to a seat in the Assembly. He had refused to take the prescribed oath affirming a belief in the divine authority of the New Testament. Naturally, as a Jew, he could not and would not take such an oath. On the following day, the 6th of December, 1809, after consulting with eminent Christian jurists, Henry [responded] to his colleagues in the House of Commons. It is a proud justification of his refusal to take the test oath. Tradition has it that his letter was framed, if not actually written, for him by Chief Judge John Louis Taylor of the State Supreme Court, a Catholic. [https://tinyurl.com/y2prjud4]

Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007), page 107:

Jacob Henry, a Jew, was elected to the state house in 1808 but he was blocked the following year because the law required him to be a Protestant and to accept the divine authority of the Old and New Testaments. A standoff ensued, with Christian lawmakers refusing to seat [Henry]. [https://tinyurl.com/y2cwxmkx]

Published in 1989 and 2007, these writings are exemplars of today’s Two Americas.

[See also Jon Meacham, ‘A New American Holy War’ (Newsweek, 8 December 2007) <https://tinyurl.com/3yahyseb> accessed 22 October 2021 (Taken all in all, religion, like commerce and nationalism and so much else in history, has had its bright and dark hours. In 1808, Jacob Henry, a Jewish-American, was elected to the state legislature of North Carolina, which refused to seat him unless he was (a) a Protestant and (b) conceded the divine authority of the Old and New Testaments.).]




Seth Barrett Tillman, American History and Today’s Two Americas, New Reform Club (Dec. 8, 2020, 6:56 AM), <https://reformclub.blogspot.com/2020/12/american-history-and-todays-two-americas.html>; 



Tim Kowal said...

This supports Huxley's thesis over Orwell's. "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one."

Why read Meacham's slanted truncated history when you can tune in to his even more slanted truncated soundbites on CNN?

Joshua said...

Slanted? It appears that Meacham came pretty close to making up a story here. There may have been debate, but there's no doubt that Henry was allowed to retain his seat.

I should be surprised that something like that could get published, but I'm beyond surprise.

Thomas Doubting said...

That's quite interesting. Catholic immigrants were the first targets of the nativists, and in fact were discriminated against in the colonies and early states. There was even a debate at the Constitutional Convention about whether to allow Catholics to vote in the new nation.

Another debate, in Boston I believe, was that schools were required to teach the Protestant Bible. The Catholic Bible has a few more books in the Old Testament, and translations differ as well.

So it makes sense that a Catholic would be sensitive to issues of religious liberty, and also to the issue of requiring acceptance of particular religious texts.

Mimi said...

Excellent paper.
'Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see'.
'A tiny point of light dispels a lot of darkness'

Betsy Lynch (Elizabeth) said...

My parents turned our dinner table into a foodfight during the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign: Mother feared Kennedy would take orders directly from the Pope. I heard similar remarks recently over Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Excuse omitted ^ , Have we evolved? We now have openly vocal anti-Semitic Congresswomen
, and a would be President disavowed by his Catholic church.