Seth Barrett Tillman, an associate professor of law at Maynooth University in Ireland, has written two revisionist articles about an incident from 1809 in North Carolina. In November of that year Jacob Henry was re-elected to the lower house of the North Carolina legislature. A fellow legislator moved to have Henry’s seat declared vacant because Henry purportedly failed the state constitution’s religious test. The next day there was a debate and the motion failed, allowing Henry to keep his seat. This unusual event has been cited by historians for different reasons. Some historians have contended that Henry was the victim of antisemitism and the failure to oust him was a sign that religious toleration had increased in the new nation. Whereas others have contended that the fact Henry was challenged at all demonstrates the bigotry of those who supported the challenge to Henry being seated. Tillman contends that recently unearthed newspaper accounts suggest the complexity and potential motives for the events are far from uncertain. In this interview we discuss Tillman’s two recent articles on this event and what it portends for the historical profession’s reliance upon primary documents to understand the past.
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 1–41 (Jan. 2021).
Seth Barrett Tillman, What Oath (if any) did Jacob Henry take in 1809?: Deconstructing the Historical Myths, American J. of Legal Hist.(forth. circa Mar. 2022).
Ian J. Drake is Associate Professor of Jurisprudence, Montclair State University.