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Monumental Questions: A Rabbinic Reflection for July 4, 2020

Despite the fact that the Constitution of the new State of North Carolina required that the holding of public office required both a belief in the “truth of the Protestant religion” and the “divine authority” of the New Testament, Jacob Henry (1775-1847), a Jew, was elected to the North Carolina legislature in 1808. However, when he was reelected the following year his eligibility to take his seat in the House was challenged. Henry rose to his own defense on December 6, 1809 and asked that he be judged on the ‘content of his character’ and not how he privately worshipped God. “The ruler of the universe,” Henry maintained, “would receive with equal benignity, the various offerings of man’s adoration if they proceed from a humble spirit and sincere mind.” Henry’s argument was successful, and the House voted he could take his seat in the legislature. For years, Henry’s elegant defense of the American view of freedom of religion was widely known and often repeated. For American Jews, he became a genuine hero and recognized as defender of their coveted freedom of religion.

What else do we know about Henry? A resident of the oceanfront town of Beaufort, North Carolina, Henry’s 1790 home still stands today and is considered a local “gem.” He was married to Esther Whitehurst and the couple had at least seven children. Further investigation also revealed that Henry owned approximately 300 acres and was the owner of 12 slaves. Nowhere in the literature on Henry is his status as a slave owner problematized but that is no longer possible today after weeks of debate and protest about the place of racism and the heritage of slavery in the American experience.

How are we to remember Henry? Is he a hero? Is he an oppressor? Is he simply a person of his time and place during which liberty was a more circumscribed idea than it is today? How shall we remember him?

For American Jews, how to remember Jacob Henry is part of a larger historical controversy now raging in this country. We could ask the same questions about our nation’s founders including Washington, Jefferson, and Madison? All heroes of democracy; all owners of slaves. How are we to remember them on this 4th of July weekend? Should we “forgive them of their sins” or do we remove them from the iconography of our national culture?

For me there are no simple answers. On the one hand, I agree with those who want to (legally) remove statues of Confederate military leaders from public squares. They were traitors and took arms against the United States. In my view, they have no place in America’s public squares. However, the public representation of slave owners who help found the nation is more problematic. Washington was the first President. Jefferson was the force behind so many of our basic rights. Madison was an author of the Constitution. They deserve a place in our public life. But how should they be depicted?

In my opinion, we need to rethink our monuments. Just as we reimagined monuments when the Vietnam Memorial was created in Washington, DC, so we need to reimagine our public iconography in general in America. We need to remember Washington, Jefferson, and Madison as great but flawed men. We also need to remember the slaves who helped build this nation and the native population who were decimated and removed from their ancestral lands. Some monuments need to come down, others need to be modified and still others need to be created. History is not a done deal. It is not a neutral collection of facts. History, ultimately, is a narrative about our national past and purpose.

On this Fourth of July our past has literally become a monumental challenge for all Americans, including American Jews. How shall we tell our story? What do we mean when we use words like liberty and freedom? How can we become a more perfect union? These are questions I urge you to discuss as Americans and as Jews. Perhaps we may not find all the answers in the next few days but, in my view, we are obliged to ask the questions.

Shabbat Shalom and a happy, safe July 4th!

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.

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