Jacob Henry House circa 1800

National Register - 1973 
Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston 
noted as "Old Beaufort House" in 1936

National Register Photo  - 1973
The Jacob Henry House is the largest and most ambitious Federal house in Beaufort, distinguished by its dramatic roof line and typically Beaufort-style mantel. Its chief significance—which gives it individual historic importance beyond its place in the Beaufort Historic District—derives from its connection with Jacob Henry; the 1809 debate over his right as a Jew to hold state office and his own eloquent speech of defense were early milestones in the fight for constitutional religious freedom.

The large house at 229 Front Street has been identified as the home of John Easton, a prominent political and military figure in the seaport town of Beaufort during the period of the Revolution. Deed research, however, indicates that though Easton owned this property, it was not he who built the house.

One of the first deeds to Colonel John Easton is that of May 7, 1768, when he bought a one-acre lot (lots 3 and 4) in Beaufort “new town” with the “dwelling house thereon” for £70 proclamation money. His appointment as an overseer in the construction of a canal from Old Topsail Inlet to the Neuse River in 1766 suggests he was living in the area before this purchase of a town lot. Easton is described in various deeds as “yeoman” and “planter,” and probably was the owner of farmland in Carteret County. A tax list of 1779 shows him the owner of 796 acres with thirty cattle, five negro slaves, and no town lots.

The present house stands on half of lot 25 in the plan of the “old town” of Beaufort. Easton purchased this lot in 1771 from the town commissioners for £1 ten shillings, the deed specifying that a house be built on it within two years. As a town commissioner himself, it is likely that he duly constructed a house though probably not an ambitious one. The requirements called for minimum dimensions of twenty by fifteen feet. In 1785, for £20, Easton sold Enoch Ward “the western part of lot no. 25 in Beaufort Old Town containing thirty three feet in front…reserving the house and ground it stands on…until the said Enoch Ward shall built one of equal goodness on some part of the said Eastons part of the lott or as they may otherwise agree.” The language suggests a bargain whereby the existing house would be deeded to Ward when he built a comparable house on the eastern half [corner of Front and Orange] of the lot. Enoch Ward had died by September of 1785 and therefore probably did not build such a house.

In 1794 Easton sold Jacob Henry “merchant” a “certain part of a Lott…Distinguished by Lott N. 25 in the Old Town…adjoining Ward’s part…being the S.E. part.” This is the site of the house at 229 Front Street. The selling price was £12. Circumstances therefore indicate that Jacob Henry built the present house sometime between 1794 and 1802. The later date is the earliest date for which a tax list is available showing him as the owner of one-half lot in Beaufort. The lot was valued at £100, an amount sufficient to indicate an improved lot.

Jacob Henry won a place in the history of his country when, after running successfully in 1808 as a candidate for the state legislature, he was challenged the following year on religious grounds. It was asserted that Henry, a Jew, did not qualify for office because of a provision in the state constitution requiring “belief in the divine authority of the New Testament.” Henry made an eloquent speech against religious discrimination, which had impact outside the state as well as within.

“I certainly, Mr. Speaker, know not the design of the Declaration of Rights made by the people of this State in the year 1776, if it was not to consecrate certain great and fundamental rights and principles when even the Constitution cannot impair….the language of the Bill of Rights is, ‘that all men have a natural and inalienable right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD according to the dictates of their own consciences.’ It is undoubtedly a natural right, and when it is declared to be an inalienable one by the people in their sovereign and original capacity, any attempt to alienate either by the Constitution or by law, must be vain and fruitless….It is surely a question between a man and his Maker, and requires more than human attributes to pronounce which of the numerous sects prevailing in the world is most acceptable to the Deity. If a man fulfills the duties of that religion, which his education or his conscience has pointed to him as the true one, no person, I hold, in this our land of liberty, has a right to arraign him at the bar of any inquisition….
Nothing is more easily demonstrated than that the conduct alone is the subject of human laws, and that man ought to suffer civil disqualification for what he does, and not for what he thinks.”

This speech ranks as an early and significant contribution in the struggle to realize some of the freedoms provided for in the United States Constitution. Henry’s cause was “aided by the luminous efforts of Judge [William] Gaston,” a Catholic who later sought (1835) to have religious requirements removed from the Constitution. He was allowed to keep his seat “on a technicality,” and the struggle to eliminate a religious test for political office continued for years.

Henry was one of Beaufort’s outstanding citizens and one of its most articulately appreciative, as evidenced in his1810 description of the town for the editor of the Raleigh Star. His account, a valuable early record of Beaufort, describes the buildings, industries and finds it “in every point of view a desirable situation for a summer residence. It is strictly a maritime village and those who are fond of the amusement connected with the water may here receive full gratification; whilst battling in the surf and walking on the beach are likely to recover the Valetudinarian.”

In 1835 Jacob Henry “of Charleston, South Carolina,” sold the house for $100 to Samuel W. Henry, his son. The same year Samuel W. Henry, “cabinetmaker,” sold it for $450 to Marcus C. Thomas, “mariner,” of Beaufort. 

Taking maximum advantage of its proximity to the water, the Jacob Henry House is oriented toward Front Street and the Beaufort Harbor. The frame dwelling, two stories high with a finished attic, rests on a high foundation of ballast stone. Beaded weatherboards cover the frame and wooden shakes cover the gable roof, which is continuous and has five different planes. An exterior end chimney of stuccoed brick rises on the northwest side; an interior end chimney on the southeast side was added later. The house is four bays wide and four deep. This configuration appears to be the result of several changes that occurred over many years.

Originally the house was only two bays deep with a two-story rear shed, the first level of which was a porch. At an undetermined time, the porch was enclosed and another rear shed, this one only one story, was added. A two-story shed roof porch was added across the front façade. Doric columns are used on the first level of the porch and Tuscan ones above, and turned balusters support a molded handrail at each level. The porch roof is an extension of the main roof—in the coastal fashion so prevalent in Beaufort. The original undercut modillion cornice remains intact along the upper portion of the façade.

The fenestration on the front façade is changed from the original arrangement and is at least partially a result of a change in plan and the addition of the porch.  Apparently the chronology of changes occurred as follows: at first there were four or five openings on the first level with the entrance in the second by from the right, and three window openings above corresponding to the end and central openings below. This arrangement was coeval with a hall-and-parlor plan. With the addition of the two-story porch, a door at the second level was cut between the central window and that on the right. It would seem that the long four-over-four sash in the front windows were installed at the same time because the molded frames match that of the door at the second level. Later the entrance bay at the first level was closed and the door shifted to the center bay. This door has a plain beaded architrave and was in response to the change to the center-hall plan.

All the window sash and molded frames on the northwest side appear to be original. At the first level the windows contain four-over-six sash; the two at the second level have four-over-four; and the one at the attic level, four-over-two. The sash in the southeast windows reads as follows: nine-over-six at the first level, six-over-six at the second and four-over-four in the attic. All the frames are molded. The sash in the shed additions is modern.

The plan has undergone three major changes. Originally a hall-and-parlor plan, it was converted to a center-hall plan with the addition of a partition wall in the parlor. This has since been removed, so that the hall-and-parlor plan has been retrieved. The difference is that the entrance door now opens into the parlor rather than into the hall. It is possible that the southeast chimney was added when the east room ceased to function as a hall. The east room is very simply finished with a beaded baseboard and simple mantel. The door and window architraves are made of a three-part Federal molding. The simplicity of this room contrasts strongly with the elegance of the parlor. The parlor has a wooden dentil cornice and walls plastered above a flat-paneled wainscot. The architraves, save that around the front door, are three-part Federal ones. Particularly noteworthy is the mantel, which while being basically Federal, has vernacular qualities which seem distinctly native to Beaufort. Paneled pilasters flank the rectangular fire opening and support a plain architrave. The frieze appears to be a compromise between Federal end blocks and a Georgian ramped entablature resulting in the end blocks having a cyma recta profile—a feature characteristic of Beaufort. Three relief sunburst of equal size ornament the central part of the frieze. The heavily molded cornice and shelf are adorned with dentils. An enclosed stair rises toward the front between the two rooms and is entered from the parlor. Closing off the parlor from the stair is a door of six flat panels, hung on strap hinges.

The second floor has been partitioned into a center-hall plan. The walls that enclosed the original west bedchamber are plastered with a molded chair rail and beaded baseboard. The partition wall has only a plain baseboard. The mantel is of traditional Federal design. The east room is finished with plastered walls and a beaded baseboard. The rear shed rooms formerly were plastered, but are now sheathed with wood. The attic is similarly treated. - NR 1973


Jacob Henry (1774/5-1847) was son of Joel and Amelia; Joel Henry was recorded on the 1790 Carteret County Census.

Jacob married Esther Lucille Whitehurst 9 Feb 1801. Esther Whitehurst (1775-1823) was the daughter of Robert Whitehurst (1740-1818) and Joanna Canaday (abt 1750-1790). Esther was granddaughter of Samuel Chadwick Whitehurst (1700-1756) and Sarah Nelson (1707-1756). Their families first settled in Hunting Quarters, Carteret County in the early 1700s; Capt. John Nelson sailed in on his own ship in 1702.

Jacob and Esther Henry's children included: Denah, Joel born 1803, Samuel born 1807, Phillip Jacob (1808-1842), Sarah, Judah (Judith) and Cordelia.

Jacob, Esther and family moved to Charleston 1817.

Further Light on Jacob Henry 
by Ira Rosenswaike Full text

The City Gazette of Charleston, 31 July 1823, reported the following obituary:

On the 16th inst. departed this transitory life, in the 37th year of her age, after an illness of 16 days, Mrs. Esther Henry, the wife of Mr. Jacob Henry of this city. Mrs. Henry was a native of Beaufort, in North Carolina, but has resided in this city for several years.

Jacob's mother Amelia died two years later. The City Gazette for July 28 1825 lamented the loss of Mrs. Amelia Henry, a native of the Island of Bermuda, but for many years a truly respectable resident in this city to which she was brought in early life, with exception of a few years' residence in Newburn and Beaufort, N.C. She pursued practice of midwifery in this city. She departed on the morning of June 25th.

Both Amelia and her daughter-in-law Esther - who was called "Hester" in the official city records and listed as thirty-eight years of age - were interred in the "Hebrew" cemetery. Amelia's will, dated April 19, 1824, indicates the composition of the Henry family a year before her death. Mentioned are her son Jacob, who is named coexecutor, and seven grandchildren: Denah, named coexecutrix, Joel, Philip Jacob, Samuel, Judah (Judith), Cordelia, and Sarah Henry. Two of Henry's children were next to appear in the obituary columns. The Charleston Courier of November 11, I835, reported the death, at the residence of her brother in Orangeburg District, of Miss Judith J. Henry, second daughter of J. Henry, Esq. of this city, aged 26 years." Judith's will, dated October I, I835, named her brother Philip J. Henry as executor. In a lengthy eulogy, the Charleston Courier of May 26, I 842, recorded the death of Philip J. Henry in his thirty-fifth year; he had been "a native of Beaufort, North Carolina, but for many years a resident of this city.

Perhaps historians have failed to note the date of Jacob Henry's death because the Charleston press published no obituary to mark the passing of this long-term Charleston resident. Nor, strangely, has any record of the probating of a will appeared, but a funeral notice in the Charleston Courier of October 14, 1847, is of moment in this connection:

The relatives, friends and acquaintances of Jacob Henry and of his son S.W. Henry, and the Masonic Fraternity, are particularly requested to attend the funeral of the former, from the residence of his son, Meeting-st., opposite Circular Church, this afternoon at 4 o'clock, without further invitation.