Abraham Clark

1726–1794

Abraham Clark was a Founding Father and Signer of the Declaration of Independence, as a delegate from New Jersey. Clark was also a farmer, surveyor, self-taught lawyer, and politician. He supported the Bill of Rights and was aligned with the Democratic-Republicans in his later years.

Abraham Clark, Founding Father, New Jersey, NYPL

Abraham Clark. Image Source: NYPL Digital Collections.

Essential Facts

  • Born in 1726 in Roselle, New Jersey.
  • Self-taught lawyer, known as the “poor man’s counselor.”
  • Served as high sheriff of Essex County and clerk in the colonial legislature.
  • Active in the Revolutionary War, a member of the New Jersey Council of Safety.
  • Served in the Continental Congress and opposed the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was added.
  • Died in 1794 in Rahway, New Jersey.

Significance to American History

Abraham Clark is important to American History because he Signed the Declaration of Independence, making him one of the nation’s Founding Fathers. Clark was also dedicated to public service during the American Revolution. Despite personal health challenges and the capture of his sons during the war, Clark remained committed to the Patriot Cause.

Life and Career of the Founding Father

Birth and Education

Abraham Clark was born in 1726 on his father’s farm in what is now Roselle, in the Province of New Jersey, Clark was an only child. His parents were Thomas Clark and Hannah Winans. As a child, Clark was frail, and his health prevented him from engaging in the physical labor typical of farm life during the Colonial Era. Despite receiving only a minimal formal education, Clark’s independent study revealed an aptitude for mathematics.

Legal Career and Marriage

Upon reaching adulthood, Clark not only worked on his father’s farm but also pursued surveying. He taught himself law to help resolve land disputes, becoming known as the “poor man’s counselor” due to his willingness to provide free legal advice or accept goods in exchange for his services, despite likely never being formally admitted to the bar. 

Clark married Sarah Hetfield in 1749 and they had ten children.

Early Political Career

Following in his father’s footsteps, Clark was involved in civic affairs. He served the British Crown as the High Sheriff of Essex County and held the position of Clerk in the New Jersey Legislature for many years. 

Signer of the Declaration of Independence

Between 1774 and 1776, Clark became involved in the Patriot Cause and was a member of the New Jersey Provincial Congress and the New Jersey Council of Safety. In June 1776, he was elected as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, along with:

After Congress declared independence on July 2 and approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, Clark sent a copy to William Livingston, a Brigadier General in the New Jersey Militia. Clark said: “I enclosed a Declaration of Congress, which is directed to be Published in all the Colonies, and Armies, and which I make no doubt you will Publish in your Brigade.”

Despite challenges to his health, Clark remained committed to his duties in the Continental Congress throughout the war. However, his him was near areas occupied by British forces, which created concerns for the safety and well-being of his family. Despite the danger, Clark continued to serve in Congress, and also the New Jersey Legislature.

Clark’s Sons Held as Prisoners of War by the British

Two of Clark’s sons — Aaron and Thomas — served in an artillery regiment during the war, under the command of Captain Daniel Neil and Colonel Henry Knox. They were with the Continental Army at the Battle of Princeton, and legend says it was Neil’s artillery that fired the cannonball that is still stuck in the wall of Nassau Hall at Princeton University.

Both Aaron and Thomas were taken as captives during the war, and held in the prison ship Jersey, where many Americans died due to harsh conditions. Both survived the ordeal and were returned in a prisoner exchange at the end of the war. 

Annapolis Convention

Following the war, Clark returned to his home in New Jersey and remained active in politics. In 1784, he started a three-year term in the State legislature.

In 1786, he represented New Jersey at the Annapolis Convention. The purpose of the convention was to The purpose of the Annapolis Convention was to find ways to regulate trade between the states.

United States Constitution

Following Shays’ Rebellion, it became clear that the government established by the Articles of Confederation was weak and ineffective, and prompted support for a “Grand Convention” to examine the Articles. 

This led to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, which started in May. New Jersey elected Clark as a delegate, but he was unable to attend due to his health. Clark did participate in the New Jersey Convention and was initially opposed to the Constitution until the inclusion of the Bill of Rights addressed his concerns.

House of Representatives

In 1787–89, Clark returned to serve in the Confederation Congress. From 1789–90, he remained in New Jersey, acting as a commissioner to settle the state’s accounts with the government. His long career of alternating between state and national service culminated in his role as a member of the House of Representatives in the Second and Third Congresses from 1791 to 1794.

Death of Abraham Clark

In 1794, Clark suffered a sunstroke at his birthplace in Roselle, New Jersey, where he had spent his entire life except for times of political duty. He passed away a few hours later at the age of 68 in the nearby town of Rahway and was subsequently buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Rahway.

Timeline

  • 1726 — Abraham Clark was born in Roselle, New Jersey.
  • 1749 — Clark married Sarah Hetfield.
  • 1774–1776 — Clark became a member and Secretary of the New Jersey Council of Safety, attended Patriot conventions, and was elected to the Provincial Congress.
  • 1776, June — Clark was elected to the Second Continental Congress.
  • 1776, August — Clark signed the Declaration of Independence.
  • 1783 — The American Revolutionary War ended, and Clark returned to New Jersey.
  • 1784–1786 — Served in the State legislature and represented New Jersey at the Annapolis Convention.
  • 1787 — Ill health prevented his attendance at the Constitutional Convention; Clark opposed the Constitution until the Bill of Rights was included.
  • 1787–1789 — Returned to the Confederation Congress.
  • 1789-1790 — Acted as commissioner to settle New Jersey’s accounts with the Federal Government.
  • 1791–1794 — Served as a Representative in the Second and Third Congresses.
  • 1794 — Clark suffered a sunstroke and died in Rahway, New Jersey.

Abraham Clark, Signer of the Declaration of Independence

This longer biography of Abraham Clark is taken from Robert Taylor Conrad’s book Signers of the Declaration of Independence, which was published in 1884. We have made corrections, additions, and updates to clarify the text, and added section headings. This has been included to provide a more in-depth look at the character and reputation of this important Founding Father.

Early Years and Marriage

Abraham Clark was born in the borough of Elizabethtown, county of Essex, and Province of New Jersey, on February 15, 1726. He was the only child of Alderman Thomas Clark, whose ancestors first settled upon the farm which descended to his son. 

Clark enjoyed a good English education, under competent teachers, and was particularly addicted to the study of mathematics, and of civil law. In the year 1743, at the age of 22, he married Sarah Hetfield, of Elizabethtown, who survived him by 10 years.

Appointed to the Second Continental Congress

On June 21, 1776, he was appointed by the Provincial Congress, along with Richard Stockton, John Hart, Francis Hopkinson, and Dr. John Witherspoon, a delegate to the Continental Congress. They were instructed to unite with the delegates of the other colonies in the most vigorous measures for supporting the just rights and liberties of America, and if it should be deemed necessary or expedient for this purpose, to join with them in declaring the United Colonies independent of Great Britain.

Clark was, for a long time, one of the leading members of the New Jersey delegation. His industry, abilities, and perseverance in the business of committees, and his plain, clear view of general measures, rendered him a valuable member of the house; while his patriotism and integrity attracted the respect and admiration of his colleagues. 

His faith and firmness were amply tested, a few days after he took his seat, by his cordial cooperation with those who advocated the immediate proclamation of Independence; and it is believed that his strong conviction of the propriety of that measure united with his many political virtues in promoting his appointment. 

One of his first duties, involving personal safety and fortune, and, what ranked above all other considerations in the estimation of Clark — the liberties of his country — was discharged with alacrity; and he affixed his name to the Declaration of Independence, with those feelings of pride and resolution which are excited by a noble but dangerous action. 

Ongoing Service in the Continental Congress

On November 30, 1776, he was again elected by the New Jersey Provincial Congress, and continued, with the exception of the session of 1779, to be annually re-elected a delegate from that state until November 1783. 

During this long period of service, his necessary intimacy with the proceedings of Congress, and the course and nature of the arduous and protracted affairs which frequently demanded a great extent of memory and attention, rendered him an active and useful member. In 1788, he again took his seat in the national legislature.

The intervals of his non-election to Congress were not devoted to leisure, nor applied to that relief from public cares which the feebleness of his constitution required. His exertions and services in the state legislature, of which he was a member during those periods, were properly appreciated, and his influence became so extensive, that he personally incurred popular praise or reproach, in proportion to the applause or odium excited by the general acts of the legislature.

Controversy with Officers in the Continental Army

Clark possessed the reputation of being a rigid economist in all things relating to the public treasury. Having, during the impoverished state of the country, strongly opposed a proposition of commutation for pay made on behalf of the officers of the Continental Army, they became his decided enemies, and united their influence with the legal interest, in opposing his popularity. 

In justification of the course that he had pursued, he maintained that he, as well as many other civil officers, had cheerfully sacrificed a large share of property and domestic enjoyment for the public benefit and that he considered the officers of the army, in common with himself, his family, and all others, as fully compensated for years of suffering and privation, by the result of the contest.

Constitutional Convention of 1787

Clark was one of the earliest promoters of those measures which led to a convention for the purpose of framing a more stable and efficacious constitution for the government of the states. He had frequently discussed this subject with Governor George Clinton, of New York, particularly as it related to the oppressive conduct of the government of that state, in levying duties on vessels from other states; and he had demonstrated the dangerous tendency of the measure. 

It is not, however, probable that he contemplated, at that period, the magnificent fabric which was subsequently erected on the ruins of the old Articles of Confederation; his views and wishes were then circumscribed to an enlargement of the powers of the latter instrument.

In 1787, he was appointed a member of the general convention which framed the United States Constitution, but was prevented by ill health from joining in the deliberations of that illustrious assembly. 

He was opposed to the constitution, in its primitive form; but his objections being removed by subsequent amendments (the Bill of Rights), it met with his cordial approbation and support. 

Anti-Federalist Stance Costs Clark a Seat in the First Congress

Advantage was taken of these free sentiments by those who were opposed to Clark. His objections were magnified into a charge of Anti-Federalism, which, joined with the opposition of the legal interest, and of the discontented officers, together with a corrupt election, (which was referred to the First Congress,) placed him, for the only time during his long political life, in the minority in the elections of New Jersey. 

Second Congress of the United States

He was, however, appointed, in the winter of 1789-1790, a commissioner to settle the accounts of the state with the United States, which office he held until the ensuing election when he was elected a Representative in the Second Congress, and continued to hold this honorable appointment until a short time previous to his death.

Later Years and Support for James Madison

Towards the close of his public career, Clark continued, with unimpaired activity, to engage in the promotion of such political measures as, according to his mature judgment, appeared compatible with the welfare of his country, or necessary for the support of its dignity. In the Congress of 1794, he exerted his influence and talents in support of the memorable resolutions submitted by James Madison, relative to the commerce of the United States.

Tension with Great Britain Resurfaces

The proceedings of the national legislature continued gradually to assume a more threatening character and a war with Great Britain appeared to be almost inevitable. These issues arose from disagreements over the provisions of the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

The irritable state of the public temper was felt upon the floor of Congress, and the debates were conducted with peculiar vehemence. Numerous propositions had been made, during the general ferment, of the most decisive nature. 

On March 27, 1794, Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey proposed a resolution for holding money for all debts due to British subjects, for the purpose of compensating Americans for damages committed on their commerce by British cruisers.

Clark’s Resolution

However, before any question was taken on Dayton’s proposal, Clark moved a resolution that suspended, for a time, the consideration of the commercial regulations. This was to prohibit all intercourse with Great Britain until full compensation was made to Americans for the damages sustained from British armed vessels, and until British troops abandoned their forts on the western frontier. 

Warm and animated discussions of the several propositions continued to take place daily, but they were suffered, by the majority, to remain undecided. 

John Jay Appointed to Negotiate with Britain

On April 16, President Washington announced to the Senate, the nomination of John Jay as an envoy extraordinary to Great Britain, for the purpose of adjusting the difficulties which existed between the two countries.

Controversy Over Clark’s Resolution

On April 18, a motion to consider the report of the committee on the resolution proposed by Clark was opposed principally on the ground, that as Jay had been nominated to the court of Great Britain, no obstacle ought to be thrown in his way. 

It was also said, that the adoption of the resolution would be a bar to negotiation, as it was menacing toward Britain, and would certainly be received with indignation; that it also prescribed the terms on which alone a treaty should be made, and was consequently an infringement of the right of the executive to negotiate, and an indelicacy to the department; and that, as it withheld the benefits of American commerce from one belligerent, while it remained free to the other, it manifested a partiality which was incompatible with neutrality, and led to war. 

On the contrary, it was urged that the measure was strictly within the duty of the legislature, they having solely the right to regulate commerce; that, if there was any indelicacy in the clashing of the proceedings of the legislature and executive, it was to the latter, and not to the former, that this indelicacy was to be imputed; that the resolution had been several days depending in the House of Representatives before the nomination of an envoy had been made; and that America, having a right as an independent nation to regulate its commerce, the resolution could not lead to war. 

Clark’s Resolution Defeated

A bill was finally brought in conforming to Clark’s resolution, and carried by a considerable majority. It was, however, lost in the Senate, on April 28, by the casting vote of Vice President John Quincy Adams.

Clark’s Sons Held as Prisoners of War

The feelings which actuated Clark in his course of public usefulness were wholly disinterested. Separating the Patriot from the father, he scrupulously refrained from exerting his influence with Congress in favor of his sons, who were officers in the army, and had been captured by the enemy: yet a part of their confinement was in the prison ship Jersey, and they suffered more than the ordinary hardships of prisoners. 

In one instance, however, paternal feeling was exercised with propriety. The treatment of American prisoners by the British had, in many cases, been peculiarly barbarous, and disgraceful to a civilized nation, and retaliation was the indirect mode by which protection was afforded to our suffering countrymen. 

Thomas Clark experienced the most cruel persecution: he was held in a dungeon, with no other food than that which was introduced by his fellow prisoners through a keyhole. When Congress found out, a British prisoner was treated in the same fashion. The British responded by improving Clark’s conditions.

Clark Retires from Public Life

Exhausted by his political toils, and the infirmities incident to a feeble constitution, Clark finally retired from public life on the adjournment of Congress, on June 9, 1794.

Character and Physical Appearance

Patriotism was the most distinguishing trait in the character of this plain and pious man. In private life, he was reserved and contemplative: preferring retirement to company, and reflection to amusement, he appeared to be continually absorbed in the affairs of the public. 

Limited in his circumstances, moderate in his desires, and unambitious of wealth, he was far from being parsimonious in his private concerns, although a rigid economist in public affairs.

His person was of the common height, his form slender, and his eyebrows heavy, which gave an appearance of austerity to his countenance. His habits were extremely temperate, and his manner thoughtful and sedate.

Death from Sunstroke

In the autumn of 1794, this excellent man suffered a sunstroke and he died within two hours, in the 69th year of his age. He was buried in the churchyard at Rahway, upon which church he had bestowed numerous benefactions. The inscription that designates the grave of the Patriot comprehends a concise view of the character of him who rests within it:

Firm and decided as a patriot,
Zealous and faithful as a friend to the public,
He loved his country,
And adhered to her cause
In the darkest hours of her struggles
Against oppression.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Abraham Clark
  • Date 1726–1794
  • Author
  • Keywords Abraham Clark, Who was Abraham Clark What did Abraham Clark do, When did Abraham Clark live, Where was Abraham Clark from, Why did Abraham Clark support the American Revolution, How did Abraham Clark become a Founding Father
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 8, 2024

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