Founding Fathers - Abraham Clark
Born: February 15, 1726 (Elizabethtown, New Jersey)
Died: September 15, 1794 (Rahway, New Jersey)
This week we'll take a closer look into the life of the man whose first name shows up at the top alphabetically among the Founding Fathers to learn what else we can about him. Abraham Clark was the only child of Thomas and Hannah Clark, who lived on a farm just outside of what is today Elizabeth, NJ (the place of his birth is now within the city limits of Roselle, NJ). On his mother's side, he was directly descended from one of the 80 founders of Elizabethtown, as it was then known, and his family on both sides was well known for public service. Young Abraham was seemingly a frail child, as his father did not permit him to participate in manual labor on the family farm, and he also did not get much in the way of formal education. Showing a bit of skill in mathematics, however, Abraham received tutoring at home in that discipline as well as surveying. On his own, he read what he could on the subject of law. As he grew, Abraham was finally able to work as a farmer but also became popular among fellow residents as someone who would assist poor farmers in matters such as title disputes, although he was never formally admitted to the bar. At the age of 22 he married Sarah Hatfield and in contrast with his own parents had a large family, eventually including 10 children.
As the child of someone who was involved in public life, Abraham Clark followed in his father's footsteps by acting as the sheriff for Essex County as well as the clerk for New Jersey's legislative assembly. It wasn't until 1775, however, that Clark was himself elected as a representative, but he was quickly recognized for his willingness to speak out against Parliament's challenges to the liberties of all colonists. On June 21, 1776, Clark was one of five representatives sent by New Jersey to attend the Second Continental Congress, replacing the previous delegation who opposed breaking away from Britain with instructions to vote for independence if it appeared the state would remain in control of its internal affairs. After signing the Declaration he remained in Congress throughout the war, serving on the committee of Public Safety, and beginning in 1780 he also served in the state legislature. Clark was himself unable to fight, but two of his sons serving the army were captured by the British and held captive aboard a ship named Jersey, where hundreds of other prisoners died under inhumane conditions. Although the British offered to release the two if Clark would simply renounce the Declaration and defect, he refused. Noted for being a devout man, Clark lobbied for a Congressional Chaplain, believing the new nation needed to express reliance on the Almighty if victory was to be achieved.
Abraham Clark differed from many other Founding Fathers in his simplicity and dislike of pretense or elitism. The New Jersey legislature passed a bill named for him during his tenure that sought to regulate and shorten court proceedings, and he fought to support financial practices that helped farmers and mechanics rather than creditors. In 1786, Clark helped the passage of a pro-debtor paper money bill in New Jersey, and also sponsored a bill preventing the importation of slaves into New Jersey. When he was offered the chance to represent his state at the Constitutional Convention, he was forced to decline due to poor health but urged others to ensure that it contained a Bill of Rights. While the battle for ratification was carried on, Clark was able to rejoin the legislature and also acted as a commissioner to assist New Jersey in settling accounts with the existing federal government. Once the new Constitution was established, Clark served two terms in the US House of Representatives from 1791-94. He died while in office after suffering from sunstroke while overseeing the construction of a bridge on his property.
The signature of Abraham Clark can be found as the ninth name in the fifth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.