Jacob Henry House circa 1800

Though plaqued with the first houses plaqued in 1963 as the Easton House circa 1771, this house was built for Jacob Henry between 1794 and 1802.  

Jacob Henry was elected a member of the North Carolina Legislature in 1808. In 1809 he was challenged to step down because, as a Jew, he denied the Divine Authority of the New Testament. The debate, and Henry’s speech in his own behalf, was widely reported and important in the American fight for constitutional religious freedom.

Legend tells us that the cellar, constructed of large ballast stones, may have been used by Federal troops during the Civil War, as a prison for Confederate soldiers captured at Fort Macon. This is, however, not documented. This cellar does include a huge fireplace. When first built, meals were cooked here and passed up through a dumbwaiter into what is now the living room. It is said that the cellar was also used, at one time, for barrel making by a Beaufort cooper.

In 1835 the house was purchased by Marcus Thomas and remained in the Thomas family until 1959 when it became the home of John and Sara Jones. In 1900, Thomas descendant, Alonzo Thomas helped fund the purchase of Pivers Island so that it could be established as a U.S. Fish Commission marine laboratory.

At one time, a Mason-Hamlin organ was located in the living room; it was a gift to Emma Duncan upon her graduation from Greensboro Female Institute in 1859. Needlework samplers, dated 1846 and 1851, were discovered in an old trunk in the house.

Much more on Jacob Henry and the house, updates the research found in Porchscapes - The Colors of Beaufort, North Carolina)

At a ceremony on June 11, 2012, Jacob Henry was honored 
with a N.C. Highway Historical Marker. 

 Jacob Henry, the first Jewish representative in the North Carolina House of Commons, served 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 or “place of trust or profit in the civil department.” A resident of Beaufort, he was elected to represent Carteret County. Although many details of his early life are lacking, it is known that he was the son of Joel and Amelia Henry, who moved to North Carolina from Charleston by the time of the 1790 census.      

Young Henry rose to importance in the state’s history not only as the first Jewish legislator, but, as such, he inadvertently became a defender of religious liberty. A Federalist, Henry was first elected in 1808, served the term without incident, and was reelected the following year. Hugh C. Mills, a newly-elected Republican representative from Rockingham County, took issue with Henry’s religious affiliation and, on December 5, 1809, introduced a resolution to vacate Henry’s seat. At issue were sections 32 and 12 of the state constitution (affirming the Protestant religion and taking a proper oath of office).      
The legislators decided to take up the resolution the next day, giving Jacob Henry time to prepare his defense. Without specifically mentioning Judaism, Henry gave a rousing speech in which he waxed about “natural and inalienable rights” and equalized religious sects with phrases such as, “the ruler of the universe would receive with equal benignity, the various offerings of man’s adoration if they proceed from an humble spirit and sincere mind.” 

One of Henry’s most ardent defenders was William Gaston, who, as a Catholic, had reason to be interested in the outcome of the debate. Gaston maintained that the religious requirements did not apply to legislative office, and therefore Henry had not violated the Constitution. Ultimately Jacob Henry was allowed to retain his seat. His inspiring and eloquent speech on December 6, 1809, has been published and quoted frequently ever since. It is considered a touchstone of religious rights and tolerance.      

Jacob Henry married Esther Whitehurst of Beaufort in 1801. The Federal era house that he built at 229 Front Street in Beaufort still stands. The Henrys had seven children before moving to Charleston around 1817. Henry did not engage in politics after the 1809 session. He died in 1847 and is believed to have been buried alongside his mother and wife in a “Hebrew cemetery” in that city. Tombstones have not been found.