Journalist, playwright, educator, religious reformer. Harby was born on November 9, 1788, in Charleston, the son of Solomon Harby, an auctioneer, and Rebecca Moses. A talented student, he excelled in classical and literary studies. Entering the College of Charleston in 1805, Harby left without graduating to take up an apprenticeship in the law office of Langdon Cheves. Uninspired by his legal studies, Harby left Cheves’s office and opened a private academy, which came to be known simply as “Harby’s Academy.” Although he made many attempts to support himself and his large family through his literary pursuits, his academy remained the most reliable source of income throughout his career. In 1810 he married Rachael Mordecai of Savannah. The marriage produced nine children, three of whom died in infancy.
Harby lived all but the last six months of his life in Charleston. According to Abraham Moïse, a close friend and biographer, Harby’s journalistic career began with the publication of a short-lived literary magazine, the Quiver (1807), which was probably the first literary journal published by a Jew in the United States. In 1814 Harby purchased the Charleston Gazette and Mercantile Advertiser, which he renamed the Southern Patriot and Commercial Advertiser. He owned and edited the publication until 1817. He edited the Charleston City Gazette from 1821 to 1823, and was a frequent contributor to the Charleston Mercury and other journalistic enterprises.
Harby wrote at least three plays: Alexander Severus (ca. 1808), The Gordian Knot (1810), and Alberti (1819), the last two of which have survived. A respected dramatic critic, Harby’s numerous essays reflected his conviction that theater should possess a moral purpose. He also dabbled in politics. Despite an unsuccessful run for the General Assembly in 1822, Harby remained politically active and wielded a significant degree of political influence in his community. In 1824 two Charleston newspapers published a series of his essays on “The Presidency,” which supported the candidacy of Andrew Jackson and the democratic policies of republicanism.
Harby’s most lasting contribution to South Carolina and the nation, however, came about from his role in the establishment of the Reformed Society of Israelites in 1825—the first organized expression of Jewish religious reform in North America. Harby became the society’s most prominent spokesman. In 1825 he published his widely circulated Discourse before the Reformed Society of Israelites, which remains a compelling statement of the society’s original goals and aspirations. Harby served as the group’s president in 1827 and, with the assistance of David N. Carvalho and Abraham Moïse, compiled the society’s prayer book.
In an attempt to further his literary career, Harby moved to New York in mid-1828, where he contributed to the New York Evening Post and the New York Mirror, a leading literary journal. He died of typhoid fever in New York on December 14, 1828, and was buried in Congregation Shearith Israel’s cemetery on Manhattan.
Moïse, Abraham, and Henry L. Pinckney. A Selection from the Miscellaneous Writings of the Late Isaac Harby. Charleston, S.C.: J. S. Burges, 1829.
Moïse, Lucius C. Biography of Isaac Harby. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1931.
Zola, Gary Phillip. Isaac Harby of Charleston, 1788–1828: Jewish Reformer and Intellectual. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.