The Jew Who Silenced America’s Earliest Anti-Semites

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tags: religion, Jew, Anti Semites, Jacob Henry



Gil Troy, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at McGill University. His tenth book on American history, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, will be published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press this fall. Follow him on Twitter @GilTroy

The story of the Jews in America shows how a people persecuted by Christians and Muslims in the Old World were welcomed, not just tolerated, in the New World. Even when anti-Semitism has sprouted, Americans’ ingrained decency and love of liberty has triumphed, squelching any budding bigotry.

Today, alas, college campuses are witnessing an un-American outbreak of Jew hatred, not “just” anti-Zionism. “Nearly three quarters” of Jewish students in last summer’s Cohen Center at Brandeis University survey reported being exposed to at least one anti-Semitic statement in the 2014-2015 academic year. The Amcha Initiative, a group that tracks anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses, inventoried 302 incidents at 109 schools in 2015, including a vandalized menorah, swastikas spray-painted on Jewish student centers, a Jewish student punched in the face, and a YikYak message posted at the University of Chicago that sneered: “Gas them, burn them and dismantle their power structure. Humanity cannot progress with the parasitic Jew.”

In an age of zero-tolerance for subtle microaggressions, these macroaggressions should be generating widespread outrage—rather than being ignored, or even excused sometimes. To resist this scourge, Jews and non-Jews alike should learn about Americans’ historic and unending disgust for anti-Semitism. A characteristic but forgotten moment occurred in 1809, when a Republican rival tried expelling the Federalist Jacob Henry (PDF) from North Carolina’s state legislature—because Henry was a Jew.

Hugh Mills of Rockingham County had a strong case, even though Henry had already served a year and was an influential merchant-politician who owned 300 acres and a town lot in Beaufort. The grandson of a German rabbi, Henry was a proud, practicing Jew, and North Carolina’s constitution clearly said: “No person who shall deny the being of God, or the Truth of the Protestant religion or the Divine Authority either of the Old or New Testament… shall be capable of holding any Office or Place of Trust or Profit in the Civil Department within this State.” Mills said Henry’s legislative seat was “contrary to the freedom and independence of our happy and beloved government.”

Henry counterattacked on Dec. 6, 1809, eloquently deploying the reason of the Enlightenment, the passion of the Revolution, the egalitarianism of the Declaration of Independence, and the guaranteed freedoms of the North Carolina Declaration of Rights and the federal Constitution itself. In a magnificent speech that would be reprinted in patriotic primers for decades thereafter, with schoolkids North and South forced to memorize it, Henry, the son of immigrants, taught his opponents Americanism 101. ...




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